Poetry and jazz have a lot in common. Each can follow a conventional narrative or melodic style. Each can also be free form, with daring experimentation, shattering the bounds of their respective genres with soaring ambitions.

Cover courtesy of Milkweed Editions

“The Century,” a collection of poems by Éireann Lorsung, belongs to the latter category, forgoing the conventional in favor of innovative expression. The book was published last October, several months after Lorsung finished a stint as visiting faculty at University of Maine at Farmington. (This year, she is teaching, among other places, at Maine Media Workshops + College.)

Lorsung’s experimental approach is vividly evident throughout. In “Form A,” which appears toward the beginning of the collection, she explains that conventional language is insufficient for what she is trying to convey:

“I need a language more open/than the language of forms, more/ spacious than the language poetry/ can be. In rooms. On pages./ In what rooms? On what pages?/ Between the you and the I, here/ This room. These pages.”

These more spacious approaches to language appear from the first line in the first part of the collection. “Redaction / monument,” as the title suggests, contains text that is covered over with black text boxes, effectively redacting it — although in the “Notes” section at the end of the collection Lorsung explains, “The blocks in this poem are not redactions but presences: they are what is there.”

Regardless of what they are called, they disrupt the narrative flow and frustrate the reader. How can the reader expect to understand the point if the message is blocked out by a non-redacted presence? As it turns out, that experience may be the point. The blocked presence lets the reader experience the frustration of people whose stories are excluded through explicit censorship or systematic ignoring or overwriting by those in power. Lorsung asks: “Who gets to monument?/ Who gets to redact?” The blocks are horizontal monuments of suppression.

Though the brief “Notes” section provides context for some of the poems, I’d have welcomed more explanatory notes. With all the enigmatic references in the collection, it felt at times as though I was visiting a graduate seminar in literature without having read the assignments or taken the prerequisite courses. Google was a companion on my journey through “The Century.”

Several themes weave throughout the collection: the damage wrought by nuclear radiation through bombs, power plant accidents and irradiated munitions; the plight of refugees; people in power exploiting power and the corresponding powerlessness that exploitation creates; atrocities committed by ordinary young men; and the passage of time. Often these themes make brief, spontaneous appearances in seemingly unrelated poems, creating an integrated impression throughout: a mosaic of spacious language.

A personified century is a frequent presence: the century dreaming, enjoying plants, serving as a benchmark for the half-life of radiation, and observing the disappearance of people and nations. “The century looks out the line of windows, over the lake./ It watches the thin pink line of light surround everything.”

In “An Archeology,” Lorsung presents a fragmentary, non-linear collection of thoughts and scenes from the century in which the stanzas appear in alphabetical order, and each line in a stanza begins with that stanza’s letter. This serial approach is reminiscent of 12-tone music often associated with genre-bending composer Arnold Schoenberg in which all 12 musical notes in the chromatic scale are played in various orders.

“An Archeology” is a micro-universe of thoughts and ideas, and reading it is not so much a linear narrative exercise as it is a journey of impressionistic discovery: it leaves a deeply moving feeling of experiencing the century. The words don’t make a statement in the way a conventional sentence might.  Instead, they create understanding at emotional and psychological levels – impressions that are penetrating, stunning – obscure at first and often becoming glaringly obvious.

The collection concludes with “When I say fathers….,” a compulsively readable thought collage about an iceberg, the Titanic, World War I, an apparent convention of poets, a December evening and an old picture of some family members taken by a friend or an uncle “who is in the room but invisible, and who for us has handed down these bodies as they once were, and outside the room the crush of history goes on.”

“The Century” is an exceptionally rewarding experience with an unrelenting gravitational pull. Its brilliantly constructed poems use spacious literary forms expansive enough to support Lorsung’s potent ambitions. In recent memory, I can’t recall being drawn so powerfully into a literary work.

Dave Canarie is an attorney who lives in South Portland and is an adjunct faculty member at USM.


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