From nearly the beginning of recorded literature, poets have been looking for some sort of spiritual meaning in their lives and searching for it with their words—or questioning their particular brand of god, or their specific pantheon, or railing against the perceived injustice of their actions, lamenting their nonexistence, their uselessness, the purposeful ignoring of their prayers. Poets sometimes wonder how things can be so horrific for themselves or others if some holy being is supposed to be watching over them. Yet still they seek answers in the lines of their poetry; but answers are not forthcoming, and the investigation leads to more asking.
The title of Dan Albergotti’s new chapbook derives itself from the “Vale of Soul-making” letter written by the poet John Keats to his brother and sister in 1819:
Albergotti examines the world and its use—the explanations, rationalizations, and excuses—and does so by examining God, god, the gods, mythology, theology, and spirituality. And how does one try to get their mind around something potentially so huge in a forty-two-page chapbook of poetry? By using both the structure and the freedom of poetic forms. In the book's first poem, "Apology in Advance," the speaker of the book lets us know he's tried this quest before and has failed:
In the very next poem, prayer is invoked along with the idea that the speaker's prayer may be going unheard. This poem, “Invocation,” is the first of a form Albergotti calls an "Albergonnet." Like Elizabeth Bishop’s Inverted Sonnet, or Kim Addenizio’s Sonnenizio form, it’s an invented form that plays on the modern sonnet and works syllabically, beginning with a two-syllable line, each following line increasing by two syllables until lines seven and eight, which both contain fourteen syllables. After line eight, lines decrease by two syllables until the last line, like the first, contains only two syllables. Each pair of lines in the poem rhyme. The effect this form has on the shape of the poem—how it appears on the page—is that of a waving semaphore flag:
What follows are twenty poems that interrogate the idea of violence and destruction in this world and of God and the gods. These poems include four ghazals, one pantoum, a couple of sestina (one of which appears to be hiding in a prose poem), another Albergonnet, one rhyming couplet, a tightly rhymed poem that is a nod to Philip Larkin, a villanelle, and a centerpiece poem that is a sequence of twelve twelve-line American Sonnets, each exploring the mythical world of a blind king and his daughter.
The poem “These Be Hectoring Large-Scale Verses” takes Larkin’s poem about parents and turns its focus onto another kind of parental figure, that of the religious God:
The four ghazals focus on the world before, during, and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Simply titled, they use the destruction brought about on that day to question the uses of God, prayer, temples, mosques, and churches. In “Ghazal For Buildings” Albergotti questions disciples and prophets and how these figures can be twisted to destructive ends:
In “Ghazal For Children,” he ponders prayer and the ones who “chose to leap instead of burn”:
In “Ghazal Of Days,” he takes on the television networks and their “slick production, theme music” they seemed to have already had on hand and ready:
And finally, in “Ghazal Of Air,” he wonders how this could have happened in a world of belief and faith, remarking on the silence of that day:
In the long central poem of the book, “Days Spent In One of The Other Worlds,” Albergotti paints a fantasy world of kingdoms and blind kings; beautiful princesses and pitied spiders; magisterial ministers and medieval scholarly priests; undecipherable language and the sufferings of love. But he ends with the knowledge that writing poems to impress a king or win the heart of his daughter is a fool’s errand, and that the poet must do it for himself:
As if to drive home the point, since the reader may still be thinking about these twelve poems in the middle of the book, six poems later, in “Couplet Found Wedged In The Doorway Between Two Worlds,” Albergotti gives us this single rhyming couplet: "But really, there's no other world, no king. / You want a song? Then teach yourself to sing." In what seemed to me, at first glance, to be a poem that is out of character with the rest of the book, Albergotti ends with “Years and Years and Years Later.” This is a poem that references and speaks to (and with) the poet Jack Gilbert. It includes lines from Gilbert’s poems “Tear It Down” and “A Stubborn Ode.” But after a closer reading, this poem became the perfect response and final comment on the title of the book. No matter that the world is a vale of tears, that there is no king, that we will all end up in the ground forever—we all must respond to the suffering and despair with wild beauty. And what if poetry itself is meaningless to change the world?:
Maybe poetry can have more purpose than just to give a reader pause or a nod in agreement. Perhaps poems can instruct, can present deep beauty and cause the heart to be “feral, too wild.” Perhaps poems are capable of sending a specific type of reader into a “saliva-frothing, torch and pitchfork rage,” as Albergotti says in an interview with storySouth. The poems in The Use of The World succeed on all counts.
The Use of the World. By Dan Albergotti. Unicorn Press, 2013.