Review: Alibi for Two

Alibi for Two
Alibi for Two by Augustus Merrill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This chapbook, which I received through Goodreads’ First Reads, narrates an impressionistic picture of land, life and relationships in the far Northern Midwest. Each poem is individual, but in combination the themes recur and re-analyze.

In the previous week, I had also read and reviewed other poetry collections by Rae Armantrout, Frank Bidart, and Anne Boyer. I wanted to make sure that I was in a poetry frame of mind when I read the collection, which I read twice due to its particular invented form. Each poem in the collection [many of which had been previously published individually over the past 35 years] is written in the same form: a short prose-poetry “paragraph” of 4-5 sentences is followed by verse comprised of single, separated lines. There is no sense of stanza to any poems. The prose-poetry lines and the verse lines were usually, but not always on the same topic and often had differing POVs. The shared form between the poems bind the collection though the narration does not arc over the course of the collection.

There are some undoubtedly beautiful moments here. In the opening poem, “I Sit With You,” the verse section opens with the two lines, “No wind over the eighty-eight acre face of Lake Nothing,//No moon in the leaf stained water.” The repetition of the form iterates the stagnancy of the scene. The final three lines of the poem pull us back into this moment, “I sit with you, my silent wife,//Until the wind stirs and the ice forms//Between us and the lake.” The slow thrum of the spaced single lines works well here. I do not think it works equally well for every poem in the collection. But that is the form for every poem in the collection. The form binds the poem, perhaps inhibiting it.

The second poem in the collection, “The Dock,” used the opening prose-poem section to great effect. I was surprised and excited by the opening lines: “The dock was built with trepidation. Not by someone joyfully launching out from land, but by someone afraid of the water, reluctant and trembling on the shore.” The image and its color and emotion are right there pulling me in. This made me excited for the collection. Unfortunately, this was the exception to the pattern. Other first lines of the opening prose sections were:

“It was not a good place to quarrel.”
“It wasn’t much of a dowry, but what she brought . . .”
“It was hard work building the little steam bath.”
“It was good to be out of the hospital.”
“It was not a good idea to leave.”
“It was a small wilderness, but a wilderness nonetheless.”
“He was not a seeker.”
“He had stopped doing the things he loved.”

Verse thrives in an economy of words. Possibly, a little latitude should exist for prose-poem passages. But, each of these 8 poems opens with a pronoun without an antecedent and remains largely vague through the first sentence. As I progressed through the collection, the form worked less well and eventually felt constraining if not jarring.

So, I re-read the entire collection. On the second read, I read every prose-poem section in a row to look for an collection-wide arc to explain the use of the form. Then I re-read all of the verse sections to do the same. Ultimately, I was disappointed by what I did not find.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

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