“We are to read this in outward things: the spoons and greasy tables in this room, the wooden shelves….good and happy things…that tell us little of themselves and more about ourselves than we had ever imagined it was possible to know”
“No ideas but in things.” Of course, WCW’s much vaunted directive suggests itself as a compositional modus for James Pollock’s delightfully bijou Durable Goods with its searingly petite framing of a teaspoon exploding its saffron spatter all over the cover with the accuracy of a kitchen disaster engineered by Jackson Pollock. At first, I heard echoes of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Small Arguments or Marguerite Pigeon’s Inventory, although the former attends to natural phenomena and the latter to an alphabetized listing of divergent objects, but Pollock is more of a severe stylist with an eye twinkle.
His taut quatrains (usually two, sometimes four or three, and only with “Lawnmower,” one) swing with a Shakesperean lilt, the majority of the pieces torqued to a turn in the final one or two lines as if they are truncated sonnets. As should be the case in every poem but so rarely is, each word is weighed, shaped, measured, listened to with relentless intent. Attend the Dickinsonian metaphysics of transmission, observe the capital transformations in a piece like “Pen:”
A rocket, pointed at an angle down
and filled not with liquid oxygen but ink.
It travels to the planets Verb and Noun.
It’s just a simple tool with which to think.
The tiny steel ball bearing at the tip
rolls like a swirl-blue marble when you write.
It transmits one last message from the ship.
Then the Pilot disappears from sight.
Or the exquisite diction in “Vacuum Cleaner” where one allusion, “Boschian,” can carry a vast range of visions, the onomatopoeia of “thwip” is shudderingly accurate and the detrital list of what it disappears: “dead skin, staples, pennies, pubic hair” is alliteratively balanced to convey all the unsaid in the noted. This piece isn’t one that ends with a bon mot or momentary revelation, the truly “durable goods” of the title, and not the machines, the apertures, the equipment. These are all eventually dust, but it is the lines that linger eternally in the psyche like: “The truest poem is the most pretending” (Faucet), “Why not just tell the truth? The truth is why” (Mirror), “your knowledge of what it’s keen on and won’t whet/that precious edge it’s so afraid to lose” (Pocket Knife), “though what keeps it sharp can be what grinds it down” (Pencil) and “It is the longing of the eye: to fashion/whereby the fashioner makes the self external” (Sewing Needle).
One of my favorite of the lyrics is “Stove.” In a duo of quatrains, it describes in its aural ballet a stunning precis of actions and object, concluding with a series of excitingly accurate verbs: “the milk scalds, the cast iron sears…the sauce simmers, and the egg, perfect, poaches.” Only an odd few pieces falter, fail to deliver that final wham bam, that sweet idea that satisfies beyond the thing itself, such as “Flashlight” whose rhymes of “keyholes” and “is” feels lazily off and whose final lines: “It understands its role is/to propagate some light into the world” seems both obvious and forced.
Most overwhelmingly, however, Pollock’s Durable Goods is one of those too-infrequent books of poems you want to carry around with you in your pocket and slip out at random times of the day for a little zing of the strange magic he’s discovered in even the most quotidian things of the world, like the “Toilet” that finishes with a sploosh that reveals a “troubling, holy image of the ghost.”