Deborah Poe’s Elements

A version of the following review will appear in the next issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

Deborah Poe’s Elements (Stockport Flats, 2010) is all over the place in a good way. The lines in the poems are short, long, jagged, breath driven, faded, bolded, italicized, rectangular, and once are even laid out so you have to turn the book ninety degrees clockwise to read the poem. Yes, Elements is all over tha place just like the elements that make up the universe – and hooray for both, for the natural elements give us life and the book Elements explores that life.

Before I get to that exploration, a detour. I want to again write about how a poem’s lines move. Or as Poe says in “Ununbium (UUB)”

earthquake syntax of
language and the mind
self hypnosis in the nerve net

“Phosphorous (P)” is a good example of this, except the stanzas move the way I hope a line will move.

Phosphorus (P)


some minerals
give small flashes
of light when stroked
with a metal point


the glow of the ocean
also catches fire
spontaneously in air


calcium phosphate is a glow
of living structure and bone.


[That layout is quite close to the book’s layout, at least in my browser.]

The poem’s movement is quite similar to a haiku’s movement if you think of each section as a line in a haiku. There’s an image in the first section, the leap to another image is in the second section, and then the  haiku leap jumping with sensation into the third section. The third section, like the third line in a haiku, immediately makes connections that seem foreign yet sensical. Also, the syntax, if that is the correct word, changes. The first section works with the actions of “minerals” with “give,” “flashes,” and “stroked.”  The section also has an action as “the glow of the ocean” “catches fire” – the action being catches fire. The action, the something doing, is the parallel that holds those two sections together during the leap. (The leap from line 1 to line 2 in a haiku still has a connecting element in the lines, and in this poem, the connecting element for sections 1 and 2 is that there is an action, not to mention the long Os.) But the third section is a statement, a definition. It’s also a big leap. The poem moves like image math – (image 1) + (image 2) = (image 3); however, image 3 is unexpected and larger than the sum of the images.

As mentioned, the poems in Elements explore life. In addition, the strongest poems are the ones that connect to something other or human, such as: the myth of  the creation of the Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound in the “Magnesium (Mg), or Basalt” poem; an origin of alchemy in the “Silver (Ag)” poem; or homelessness in the “Niobium (Nb)” poem. In fact, in “Niobium (Nb),” the poem begins by subtly evoking the death of Niobe from Greek mythology. Niobium, which is a new earth mineral, gets its name from Niobe, and many of the poems evoke the origin of the element’s name while also connecting to something or other.

 Another example of a poem connecting to something human occurs in “Copper (Cu),” which is the poem that you have to turn the book ninety degrees clockwise to read. In this poem, copper is used as symbol of the labor movement. In this case, a parallel is drawn with the IWW member Frank Little, who was lynched for defending the rights of the copper mine workers in Butte, Montana, in 1917, and whose lynch mob pinned a sign to him that read, “Others take notice. First and last warning. 3-7-77. L. D. C. S. S. W. T.” (He’s also the same Frank Little who was once arrested for reading The Declaration of Independence on a street corner.) This poem also sings with the voices of Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders – a chant moving down the page like a labor movement in a march for its rights.

Elements is a smart collection of poems that act as a:

a closer experience
with the geological body


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