George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.


George Looney's – The Precarious Rhetoric of AngelsSometimes you find a good book of poems, one that is enjoyable to read and one that you can learn writing from. The poems in George Looney’s The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels (White Pines Press) do both. This book is enjoyable to read. The surface story of each poem makes sense and flows well, and all the layers below the surface create meanings. And in this book, the meanings revolve around loss, or as he says, “Meaning alludes to something lost.” These poems also understand the tension between syntax and the line, and that’s what I’m concerned with right now.

Let’s look at these lines from “Faced with a Mosque in a Field of Wheat”:

                    Not even sex
   can disguise the flatness of place
   topographical maps turn gray
   and the sky blurs, anonymous.

Note how the pauses (the line breaks) cause a tension against the movement of the syntax. Note how that tension forces the reader to slow down to pay attention so as to not overlook, to not anticipate, and to not lose the meaning of what is going on. See and hear how a line makes sense and then is redefined by the next line and the next.

Or consider the opening lines from “A Vague Memory of Fish and Sun”:

   Some rivers bend from sight or burn down
   to nothing but fossils and dust.

Now some of us may have written:

   Some rivers bend from sight
   or burn down to nothing
   but fossils and dust.

But with Looney’s poem, a different tension arises with the syntactical pause after “nothing,” which seems to complete the thought (which is why I made a line break after “nothing”) and seems to complete the line above. In fact, it sounds like it almost is part of the first line, but that’s just what the grammar ear wants. The first line is doing two things. First, it is saying “Some rivers bend from sight,” that is, they disappear. Then we read the “or”, which seems to indicate something contrary will happen. So we anticipate, when we read “or burn down,” that something will remain. This is where the second thing happens, the line has countered the reader’s expectations. So instead of burning down into a pile of ashes, or something, it “burns down / to nothing.” Now here’s the big pause where syntax and line have finally come to agreement – it’s a mental sigh of relief as we get what is going on in the lines, we get our bearings. But now it’s the syntax’s turn to have its way. And it has its way with “but.” Here “but” is acting similar to the “or” except it is also working against what the lines have already done. The “but” doesn’t slow down the movement of the poem but rather propels it forward. Now what was lost when we read “nothing” is now recovered with “fossils and dust.” These lines mimic a vague memory (as the title suggests), and they play with the theme of loss.

Here’s another example of the line-syntax tension:

   nothing. Loss is
   elitist and forgetting is best
   done in layers.
                                (“The History of Signification”)

You see how each line can create its own independent meaning with “nothing” and “loss” balancing and reinforcing each other, and the line almost reads like a definition (if Yoda were reading it). The next line behaves similar with “elitist” and “best” balancing each other, and there is a definition of sorts in there with “forgetting is best.” But here, as is often the case in the poems, the line is working a tension against syntax. The status of “forgetting is best” becomes a how-to on the line break. “How best to forget?” and the third line responds, “Forgetting is best done in layers.”

This back and forth between line and syntax is one of many likeable aspects of The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels. I like how it provides movement in the reading and shiftings in the readings. I like that the book moves as the poems move. I like how I must read precariously.//




Looney, George. The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels. Buffalo, NY: White Pines Press, 2005.//

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