Book Reviews

so / many / connections

by Zach Peckham | Contributing Writer

The Soft Path
Joshua Harmon
University of Akron Press, 2019

Is it possible we’re living in a simulation? Being a person on the internet, one can’t avoid encountering popular theories to this effect from time to time, to the point where it has become a recognizable style of meme. I’m thinking specifically of that brand of internet video where someone points their phone up at the sky and zooms in on a “UFO” or other vague aerial phenomena, usually through a car windshield or while standing in the parking lot of a gas station, accompanied by some Twitter-y caption along the lines of “must be a glitch in the matrix” or “uh oh you guys, simulation’s having trouble loading, tomorrow’s gonna be fucked up.” This is a fine and funny thing to scroll past, and I know there are legitimate scientific theories on the notion of a simulated universe that one could go and investigate more deeply, but it’s not something I ever personally put much stock in or considered beyond the realm of funny internet goofs. Joshua Harmon’s recent book of poems The Soft Path, published in 2019 by the University of Akron Press, has changed all that.

                      and night
again: offset supermoon
disk slips above Pattaquattic,
clear of adblocked clouds
to legitimize this record: overhead’s
only a seamless stitched sphere
of digitized stars:

The Soft Path is a book of three long, call them lengthening, poems meditating on a commute— the specific one Harmon makes “driving / the same parkway sixteen times / a month to mark goldenrod’s nod.” Ostensibly, the drive gets him to work, as one gathers from context, but the poem also investigates the nature and implications of commuting as an act: an institution of American routine and therefore an activity which occurs within the dense netting of an economy, across land, with layering ethical and emotive resonances that bear mapping out via poetics. While the notion of a “commuting book” is probably the least sexy and most deflated interpretation of an “on the road” premise available, Harmon’s attention to the mechanics of this process and its emanating effects on the self, the earth, and the world all build into an exponential expansion of the incredibly mundane, something very much akin to an explosion. Our most myopic actions of daily drudgery take on global consequences. Everything implicated. Nothing safe.

to horizon, bottom-line news
ticker scrolling past
off-ramp and on-ramp, radials
shredded on rolled-in rumble
strip, persistent stains where animals
bled, front-end dents on steel
W-beam guardrail,
injection-molded crumbs caught
in non-native grasses: so many
daily impressions, disabled
expressions: the eros of one
maple branch rubbing another in
a resolute northwest wind:
many connections
I can’t keep

It’s worth preserving the formatting here, excerpted at length as it may be, in order to highlight the impact of Harmon’s command over lineation, a strategy which lends volume to the sonic materials of words as much as to the physical weight of the objects to which their meanings are ascribed, in truncated clauses and enjambed syntax that ultimately demonstrates the essential proximity of seemingly distant things to one another. Systems overlay each other overlaying a landscape of layered subsystems, which overlays what? The network is a dense one, and our ability to understand—let alone track—its patterns and powers appears fundamentally busted, despite a dearth of technological instrumentation: “a pan / -orama unrushed / at 73 mph, 45.8 mpg, / 190 deg. F: but / snow’s only a series / of 1×1 pixel GIFS / tracking me.” Harmon’s is an ecopoetics fixated on the striations of a technocapitalist surreality, wherein the promise of digitized convenience rubs up against the extant programming of the natural world, their separation dissolving in language “be / -neath infinite / -ly irreproducible / clouds” and the “utter brevity / of transit: two / -inch screen, dead head / -phones, crosstalk sky.”

the unaccidental ratio
of person to auto:
                          consider the optics:

That some anti-capitalist sentiment would accompany close attention to sets of fraught and fraying systems should not come as any surprise, and the book’s dual epigraphs—a few lines from Ed Roberson’s Atmosphere Conditions and an excerpt from Amory B. Lovins’s prepared testimony to the U.S. Senate in 1976—do plenty to announce these poems’ incoming concerns with respect to economy and ecology. But there is a refreshing sense of possibility to The Soft Path’s treatment of this familiar set of problems, a freeness in its rendering that reminds us of the decadent fields of perception that language can open onto, even in application to our lamest of worldly conundrums. This is the true project of the book, I think, and the argument is joyously unrhetorical. Which is probably the ideal mode for a poetic argument. If a “poetic argument” is a thing. Harmon’s open experimentation at the nexus of meaning, sound, and form is the real rhetorical framework of the text:

harmonics, glis-

sandi of S4
frazil ice

into, against

itself like a self
-ie’s intervent-

ions, sustain
-ing functions:

Here, granulated lines enjamb to cross-multiply possible meanings at the level of the line, procedurally initiating and accelerating this opening poem’s forward-leaning velocity. As the first poem in the book, “Holyoke Range” is also its shortest, built out of proportionately compact units of speech through which Harmon’s poetics are most discretely attuned to sonics and entendre, lasting only a few pages. “Cascading Failures,” which follows, is a poem of incrementally longer line length and page count, and the final poem of the book, “Horizontal Dropouts,” bears both the longest lines and densest meditation spread over the largest number of pages. These accumulating sections of book, both in their formal shapes and titling phraseologies, make for a reading of a kind of unfolding, expanding map, or perhaps encompasses a zooming in, the conflation of those opposing notions perhaps being a crucial final point. In a sense, these three different titles can all be taken to mean the exact same thing, each elaborating on the last: supposing that “Cascading Failures” is an artful if sardonic description of a mountain range, “Horizontal Dropouts” is the same, albeit with the added entendric synonymy that links “dropout” to “failure.” This simultaneous quality of expanding and sinking in is really what will prompt one to call The Soft Path an especially meditative book of poems; not merely the fact that it is a literal “meditation” on a commonplace act of living. Yet even as this rhetorical dynamic hums along, Harmon’s poetry remains delightfully open to the possibilities of play: “A new five-acre / solar ar- / ray’s in ar- / rears after / seven cloudy days.” The outcome of these experiments is a book that is critically incisive and formally exciting, while also being, dare it be said, fun. All the poems here end in colons that suggest the essential ongoingness of The Soft Path’s process, which is one of layered processes, cutting across a landscape rendering in laggy fits and starts a la Windows 95 or corrupted Linux OS, leaving one at its end to ponder the nature of the prevailing operating system:

The soft path,
the signal path’s
purity: branching
ahead of clouddata
and the freest
enterprises: the
404 error of sky
-line at twilight,
line of headlights,
what a corrective less
-ening sees: ghost
times to run
down: the bland

Zach Peckham is a writer and musician from Massachusetts who quit his marketing job to study poetry in Ohio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lowell SonHappiness Pony, @tuffpoems, Barnhouse Journal, and on the Academy of American Poets website. He is a candidate in the NEOMFA where he works at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.