Being a poet in America is like being a submarine: you might be seen when you pop up, and, as a rule, people don’t go looking for you. Arthur Vogelsang belongs to a special class of the American poet-as-submarine, the outlier, which means they are seen even less than many other poets. Outliers are seldom the focus of literary conferences and hardly ever appear — in name or face — on the covers of either hip or mainstream poetry magazines. In the case of Vogelsang, this is ironic because for many years he was one of the editors of the widely distributed, newsstand magazine American Poetry Review, where he published and promoted many writers, including me.
It seems to me that being an editor of a mainstream poetry magazine often disqualifies you from getting your own books reviewed, because — especially, in the case of Vogelsang — you haven’t turned that position into a way of exchanging favors. In all the years that I have known Vogelsang — we met at a party for the American Poetry Review at the once famous, now closed Gotham Book Mart, located at 51 West 47th Street in the mid-1970s – he has never once asked me to review his work, write a blurb, or even say something nice about his work in public. Such exemplary behavior should not go unnoticed.
Orbit (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016) is Vogelsang’s seventh book of poetry. His first book, A Planet, was published in 1983. In a country known to celebrate excess, gaudy amplitude, and over-production, publishing seven books in thirty-three years is practically like not publishing at all. This is compounded by the fact that Vogelsang’s books are thin. There are less than seventy-five pages of poems in Orbit, with the longest poem being a little over four pages.
So what is it about Vogelsang’s work that makes him special, other than that he doesn’t write like anyone else and never did? The first thing is that the speaker in the poems is not the poet: he is a shape-shifter who inhabits an alternate universe that resembles this one, but which also differs from it in ways that can be curious, disturbing, and strange.
These are the opening lines of the first poem, “Verde Valley 1311 AD,” which set the tone and parameters for the poems that follow:
Our empire became so strong and wide we voted
Each and every person would go to heaven.
Not unanimous – 79% to 10% with 11% abstained –
But a clear mandate. Caused a few problems.
Those buried vertically and those buried horizontally
Had to accept each other’s ascension.
By the time readers get this far into the poem they have been pulled into Vogelsang’s universe, which is governed by rules they would more likely encounter in a science fiction novel. Everything is topsy-turvy and mashed together but somehow it all makes sense in some weird and even creepy way. Later in “Verde Valley 1311 AD,” we read:
The mother, the next baby, and the dead child (who
Was not eligible due to not being a person)
Had to be near each other when transfer, death of ma,
Or temporary residence of child’s spirit in ma, occurred.
“When does a person become a person?” is being argued over right now, and has been for many years. Is what Vogelsang has written that far away from some of the heated arguments taking place in courts and on the streets?
The poet’s conversational tone, which runs the gamut from breezy to chopped, is generally declarative, without a lot of moments of self-reflection. Reading Vogelsang’s poems is like riding a roller coaster rather than looking in a mirror, waiting for the moment of anticipated revelation. You don’t feel set up, like you do at the meaningful movies Hollywood is known to churn out these days.
The logic governing the poems is only good for the one ride you take on the mind-spinning journey that is the particular poem. Bringing the same set of expectations to each poem doesn’t work. The reader has to start all over, be pulled into the poem’s orbit. Even when the poet is focusing on something banal and familiar, the oddness of his perception becomes apparent. This is how the aptly titled poem, “Life Is Slightly Different Than You Think It Is” opens:
There are an unexpected number of seashells in everybody’s house.
There are not a surprising number of dogs.
There is hard red candy waiting on some tables, not a lot.
In a few gorgeous dishes and in some boring beige dishes,
But in nearly everywhere in my house there are a lot of shells,
And in some places a few shells, just as there are lots
And a few in your house and everybody’s house, unexpectedly.
Vogelsang is a poet who is part anthropologist and part science fiction writer. He is interested in the customs that make up America or whatever it is you want to call this place bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
But say, what about the actual streets of these small wonderful towns
— Bookstores, brunch spots, wine shops, mellow New Yorkers
Walking among the invisible monks and occasional moose —
For these the shady streets seem to go on forever,
On foot they go past where you should go, and that’s nowhere,
Which is the point of a retreat.
Vogelsang neither retreats nor goes into one.
This is how the speaker of “Positive” begins his view of humanity:
Here’s what I like about humans.
Every time I talk to one, it’s a little different.
What Vogelsang does is keep sticking himself in corners where the narrative seems to have almost no place to go, and, instead of spinning his wheels or getting out through some stylistic trick or tic, he charges ahead; he galumphs along and we go along with him.
Are you really going to want to stop reading a poem, “Incident at La Brea and Sunset,” that begins:
Early this morning we adopted 12 stem cells,
After reading the threatening paper this morning,
One cell from each of the horoscope months.
So far each cell has no characteristics
Except the right to bear arms.
If you do want to get off the roller coaster, it is probably because the America you live in is a gated community, a fairytale full of comforting revelations rather than an unfolding nightmare in which everything makes terrible sense.