by Gabrielle Bates | Editorial Assistant
Burnside Review Press, 2017
Montreux Rotholtz’s debut collection Unmark is obsessed with slipperiness. The body, identity, place—for Rotholtz, all shine wetly, warningly. Again and again, images are described as buttered, polished, glossy, slick, covered in oil or lacquer. The tactility of such descriptions, combined with their visual sheen, lends the world of Rotholtz’s poems a conscious artifice and provides a constant reminder—akin to Marianne Moore’s syllabic arrangements—that what you’re reading is a made thing, that the maker is interested in what it means to make and be made, that you, reader, should keep your wits about you, as nothing articulated is wholly to be trusted for what it claims to be.
Contemporary poetry is chock-full of conversation. I can’t think of a single new collection I’ve read in the last few years in which the poet hasn’t incorporated other people’s words into their writing, whether in the form of epigraphs, quotations, samplings, imagined or actual text messages, or tweets. Many of my favorite collections (Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn, Airea Matthews’ Simulacra…) lean heavily into these sorts of modes with breathtaking results. Many essays could be written on the conversational quality of contemporary poetry (which is distinct, in my mind, from chattiness, though not wholly unrelated), but Unmark leads us to entirely different questions. What happens when a collection presents all the words as coming from the same brain, when the reading act is kept out (at least in a direct way) from the writing entirely? What happens when a poet assumes ownership of all the language?
For one thing, the reader might begin to make their own poetic-lineage assumptions and connections. Trained to read contemporary works as responses to other works, in the absence of guidance from the writer, I guestimate. While there are no explicit homages in Unmark to other poets—no epigraphs, found language, or “Afters”—I do find certain poets (of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry tradition, in particular) glimmering in the fence clinks of Rotholtz’s words. The poem “Psalm”—with its spare style, sonic riffs, and humor—reads like something I might expect from Rae Armantrout, for example.
limps up the old citadel
the wrecked chime
hum-parlor its lack
help me I’m partial
In this poem, short enough to include here in its entirety, we see Rotholtz doing what she does in so many of her poems: moving like a gem cutter, chiseling language, leaving us with careful and mysterious progressions that glint in all directions. How so are the gates “lime”? In color, in scent, in stone? By the time I get to “limp” (aural cousin of “lime”) and the full rhyme with “chime,” I no longer care, so swept up am I by the musical satisfaction of those combinations. Rotholtz’s poems, when they refuse any sort of literal reading or narrative, invite the reader to sift through the words one at a time and delight in how each one, in scattershot relation to the others, evokes a particular sonic effect, tone, or point of tension.
To wrap my brain around the tones and tensions in “Psalm,” I begin by divvying the diction. A central, if fuzzy-edged, opposition between a scientific approach to the heavens (“planetary cold,” “celestial”) and a religious one (“Psalm,” “gates,” “citadel,” “chime”) begins to coalesce. One might expect the topic of religion to appear more frequently in a book that opens with a prayerful address (“Lord, I was made / irradiated—radiant”), but Rotholtz skirts this expectation, broaching the subject directly only fleetingly throughout the book. The reader is in charge, ultimately, of deciding for themselves what sort of consciousness the speaker embodies (is it even human?) as well as what they think the speaker’s relationship is to God. The speakers of Rotholtz’s poems are wily and impossible—at least for me—to pin down in terms of political or spiritual belief. And this enigmatic quality of perspective is the cerebral counterpart to the sensorial slipperiness of Rotholtz’s images.
For an example of Rotholtz’s wiliness of voice, take another look at the last line of “Psalm.” The double meaning in the word “partial” gives the line some of Rotholtz’s trademark slickness. “I’m partial” could mean the speaker is incomplete, or it could mean that they are biased. The first meaning would seem to align the speaker with a more overtly religious frame of mind: someone reaching out to a higher power out of a desire to be made whole. The second meaning, however, undercuts this sincerity; if the speaker is partial to something, what is it? Are they partial to believing in God, to science, to word play, to something else entirely? Is the act of favoring anything, in their mind, a state of sin? We are left at the end of “Psalm,” as Rotholtz consistently leaves us, asking questions, surprised by a sudden change in mode, a bit befuddled by the accrual of details, delighted by the slippage of sounds that got us here.
Related to this collection’s obsession with slipperiness and sheen is the recurring theme of doubling and impersonation. One of my favorite poems on this theme is “Mimic,” which—unlike “Psalm,” which resists any sort of literal reading—provides us with a vivid narrative.
gliding wet and dark
against the house.
Clotted milk in brine jar.
I poured the salt water
or rather its remainder,
into the cottonwood,
watched it drain to white rind.
It was winter, that sharp
smell, crunch in the lung,
some days I knew I heard
that big Cadillac slipping
from the cliff, ran out to see,
but it was just the mimic,
spitting gravel from his mouth,
splayed in the soft peat.
There’s so much movement in the images here, such a multivalent sensory experience. Visual observations, yes, but also less expected descriptions: the synesthetic “crunch” of breathing in the cold, for example, and the tactile contrasts of hard and soft matter. Olfactory imagery, often ignored by poets, is present here; the scent of “clotted milk,” “brine,” “salt water,” and “peat” is inextricable from the poem’s quietly pungent mood.
The poem begins with a short catalog of images, followed by the appearance and past-tense actions of a first-person speaker. Framing the poem as a memory—perhaps as far back as childhood—slides space between the reader and the vivid sensory experience being described, and in that space, a ghostiness swirls. A nebulous unease pulses through the vast majority of Unmark’s more narrative poems. The snake. The slickness. The perceived plunge of the car. As I read, I’m on edge for the characters; I worry for them.
In her more scene-driven moments, Rotholtz transports us to lands that feel far away in time, populated by town mimics, stilt-walkers, and men with gold noses, where bands on the run don cloaks, eat spiced rabbit, and ghosts are laid to rest in the sea. A third of the way through the book, she pulls us into an epic series of long-lined poems in which we are part of a husband-and-wife team (Adam and Eve in reverse, as Rotholtz calls them in an interview) being driven from home and pursued in atmosphere of mysterious threat. In the short, quasi-parable poem “Siphon,” Rotholtz describes with haunting vividness an opening in the world into which “everything is draining.” In “Composite,” Rotholtz assumes a teacherly tone to set forth an extended metaphor of woman as geography, describing women in terms of arctic and subarctic regions. But in poem after poem, regardless of what mode she’s using, what we encounter in Unmark is a poet delighting in language: its ability to transport people to places and sensations that would be otherwise impossible to experience.
Gabrielle Bates works at Open Books: A Poem Emporium and serves on the editorial boards of The Seattle Review, Broadsided Press, and Bull City Press. Her poems and poetry comics appear in Poetry, New England Review, the Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Guernica, among other journals, and she is the recipient of support from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Artist Trust, and the University of Washington, where she received her MFA. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she currently lives in Seattle. website: www.gabriellebat.es / twitter: @GabrielleBates / instagram: @gabrielle_bates_