But you sit at your window and dream of that message
when evening comes. Franz Kafka, “An Imperial Message”
We know poetry and prose married and what sprang off their discrete union—yes, discrete, as numbers are—was a hybrid. The poem and the prose did not choose one last name or even move into the same house. Nonetheless they dare to speak their love, as the wordy will, and incessantly. Where was I? Oh, the offspring: The prose poem, which, in Slackline (Hank's Original Loose Gravel Press, 2012, $7), Judy Roitman's latest chapbook, gets frisky with the epistolary form.
Prose poem missives. Among other opportunities, they afford a reader a chance to spy. Me and my lesser angels appreciate that chance, or at least illusion of overhearing Roitman and her addressees — M — and S — and A —
Spying, or, to be kinder, our curiosity, is why we read letters (of the famous and not)—the hope that the correspondence is without the fabrication, fantasy, or lie of straight-ahead fiction and poetry. If in the process of reading we're inhale a world view (and more) as is the case in Keats letters or the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell, all the better. That said, the epistolary prose poem is a hybrid's hybrid.
The first letter begins, “Dear M —.” And then, “It's impossible, the walk around the reservoir and now this, a simple vessel in the kitchen, failed. Foxes all around us, even here, unrecognizable, the way they sit, watching or move without acknowledgment, their soft tails.” What a delicious mystery. But it's over soon and then we're onto “S.”
“Dear S — I tried to stop you but was stopped at the light.” Each missive (and of course the two I've quoted are each meatier than what than I served up), pulls in the reader, who is soon all ajumble, assuming it's true that the human mind seeks to establish order. The third, also addressed to “S —,” asks, “How come everyone I know seems to have a name that begin with S —?” There's more than one “S — ”? Or “M — ”? Abandon the hope of tidiness in favor of creativity's inconclusiveness.
“H” (on page 22) is informed, in a sort of neighborly manner, “You told me about the snake but I didn't believe you and now it's become a milk carton left too long in the trash.” This is one of my favorites. Roitman conjures complementary memories — “children running up to you with their glasses on...” “The way you sat on your couch...” and “that fabulous blouse, the grey one with buttons.”
It is easy, and good, to identify with the combination of specificity of detail and seeming pulled-from-the-air reference—the mind at work, with its inherent logic, honed from a lifetime of dreaming, living, reading.
A third of the chapbook is graced with woodblock illustrations by Sally F. Pillar. They are charming, work well with the letters, and my only complaint with Slackline is the omission of Pillar's bio.
Finally. These prose poems remind me of sonnets, in that, a question is posed in the first sentence or two, and in some way responded or referred to in the final sentences. Forms are reinvented all the time. Roitman may have had that in mind, and whether it was conscious or not, she's a well-read poet, and thus well-informed by the unconscious.
*The Kafka quotation was my choice and not referenced in the chapbook.
**Judy Roitman lives in Lawrence, Kansas. When she told me she was visiting New York at the beginning of the summer I set up a reading with her, Patricia Spears Jones, Elizabeth Macklin, and myself. We were in the garden at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn on the Solstice. I mention this in the interest of disclosure, which is never full, but always necessary.