Friday, February 14, 2014

Taurus by Paul Nemser


Taurus  by Paul Nemser

Review by Alice Weiss

            Paul Nemser’s Taurus is a poetry book with the scope of a Russian novel and the reach of a modern metal robotic arm able to withstand radioactivity, able to dispose of  radioactive waste.  There are over 100 poems here most of them lyrics, many of them in tercets, recalling Dante’s Inferno, like this one, a vast journey through a cultural landscape. There are lists and newspaper reports, classified ads for Russian wives.  There are mythical lovers and robot lovers and mythologizing scientists, bus images  Taurus is immensely ambitious at its core –sad and brave and funny, romantic—the book undertakes an epic reanimation and a re-evaluation of the Europa myth  engaging with an urban underworld of exploitation, technology, and science.  
             A myth, after all, is  a story of characters whose relationships reflect, explain, or symbolize both explicit and inchoate issues like origins, sexuality, love, landscape, culture and the seasons, power, domination,  science, and patterns of historical immigration and cultural exchange. In the original myth, Europa is a pretty cowherd on the Phoenician coast whom Zeus,
in the form a beautiful white bull, seduces and carries on his back west across the sea to the island of Crete.  Here, Europa is carried east over borders like a fugitive into Russia, “the snow cracks of a dark imperium.” She “listens for footsteps/Do they come for me?” “My Fate” she says

                        steps forelegs
            down out of the sky.  My exile

            beckons with shaken horns.
            My husband bears me on his back
            toward crosshatch birches
            where gods and men
            walk in the same shadows—

            But this lyrical figure, seeming at one with the natural world, is crossing the border into a different world controlled, as in the original myth, by the bull god, but different, contemporary.  The god  takes the form of a metal gargoyle perched under the roof of an insignificant palace near the Fontanka, the river that flows through the middle of St. Petersburg.  This is the city that Peter the Great pulled into Europe, and pulled Europe into.  The Palaces, the wide avenues, the paintings, the sculpture, the architecture, all Paris.  The bull gargoyle himself is a European figure but here he launches into Russia, makes Russia his bailiwick, his night club, his love nest. 
            When the god animates the bull to climb down from its perch, he becomes a bouncer in a night club,  Europa, a model on a scrolling placard. 
            He’s a god in the costume of a gargoyle
            in a speed shocked age.

            antennae in his horns, mirror glasses.

and she:
            How palpable she is across land and water,
            her dusky electricity
            almost in his metal reach.

            We are taken through the journey by an impersonal guide, our Virgil, in the form of side bars telling us what is going on and what we are about to see. In the five page series, for example, “His Age, Any” the sidebar:Personal ads /from the bull/ gargoyle’s/ website for /Russian brides. Romance vies with devastating humor, for example, “Anna’s personal info: I am calm and lovely.  I have well-sided interests.” and Irina who wishes for a partner, thus: “I want to meet a man with serious relations to me.  I need a lot of attention, kind and warm feelings. . .I want to be loved and one woman only for one man (height 5’7”)”  Europa, in one of any number of lyrical prose poems, desires
            A man with a mineral strength. A straight-ahead
            approach. who will breakfast on herbs and new mown grass, his chest bare
            as a boulder.  Whose words boom within that chest and Ohhhh comes out
            round as a sphere.

Nemser’s romantic imagination seems boundless: Europa as a matryoschka, a nesting doll,
            You inside you
            and inside that
            is you,

            Child- sized you fingernail you,
            tiniest speck
            without flaw.

and again, “Her Image-Griboedov Canal”
            I envy the photographers
            who saw you live:
            golden airy thinness,

            a direct unceasing gaze
            as if the lens had a soul.. .

            Snapshot. Snap. No haze, no shade.
            Snap. Snap. Every shot rips a hole.
            Is it like that for you,
            My photogenic bird?
            Lightbringer, when the shutter closes.

In a poem called “Nuclear” Europa  speaks
            Come we’ll sleep when all’s exploded
            Let’s rise and split and slice like moons.
            Eclipse me. Reflect me
            in a broken reef, a blackened sea.
            I’ll destroy you if you destroy me.

Another aspect of this work, like going down a creek bumping into rocks, are the puns. The title
of the personals section, His Age, Any, is actually the refrain.  All the Russian brides will take a man, any age, but the breadth of cultural consideration and reconsideration bounces you into the notion of “Age” as era, the Matryoschka poem is an email “attachment.”
            Once Yevgeny, the robot arm shows up from the secret city of Tomsk where he had been enriching plutonium, he enters the “Radium Institute founder, VI. Vernadsky. . .
            mapper of the radioactive flesh of Mother Russia.

            Yevgeny full circle.  Once “bomber,” “poisoner,”
            sponges up the Pu, U and all the transuranics.

PU indeed. A poem or so later, there is a list of all things in Russia and the world named for Vernadsky, as if he were an Athena, or George Washington.
            And love, love.  The air as orgasm.  A group of pages from newspapers describing weird incidents of ball lighening, interspersed by Taurus speaking poems.  Here is Taurus listening to drumming near,  Dom knigi,a famous bookstore in St. Petersburg in the renovated Singer sewing machine building. “Drum. . .”
            Like the god’s voice, but without the god.

            Without even the demigod, the hemidemisemitgod.
            The bull-man, revved up, ready to explode—listens:
            that rhythm? Is it an empire falling?
            Is that glass kniving into Nevsky tar?
            . . .The water settles, then explodes.
            A carp flies on the embankment
            bleathing air.  Everything’s
            waiting to be caught.

            What happens when gods copulate?  Zeus took Europa by force: war, violence. and love.  This book is such a layered experience that I cannot hope to cover its pleasures in a single review.  Some parts of it need to be read with Google close by, but the lyricism, the jokes, the characterizations, the nightclub, the robots’ love affair.  All demand reading and rereading.  Taurus is certainly well worth the The New American Poetry Prize conferred on it last year.  Paul Nemser will be featured at the Brookline Public Library Poetry Reading February 16, 2014.  Next week.  It’s a not miss.

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