Holding smoke

David Greenspan, One Person Holds So Much Silence (Driftwood Press, 2022)

One Person Holds So Much Silence is a poetic experiment with far-reaching sources, an evasive methodology – and eccentric yet riveting results. Dense in places, whimsical elsewhere, the collection is an unflinching but frustrating meditation on language, the body… and cigarettes.

For a debut collection, David Greenspan’s project is nothing if not ambitious. His landscape takes in Wyoming fields, ‘vulgar Florida’ and fragmentary, anonymous cities. The poetry is bold and lively; it seems, at times, to surprise itself – like a symphony orchestra, spontaneously and collectively choosing to move from playing Liszt to Lady Gaga then John Lennon… then lacrosse.

Encounters take place on ‘this illegible night’, where indistinct landmarks enclose the poetry in its own self-contained world. It is a world where the protagonists are small, often knowingly insignificant. Florida does not need its human storytellers; it is ‘home to countless endings of its own’.

The themes can be dark. ‘The first time my father cut himself’ is a challenging poem but one that moves the reader closer to some form of revelation. Some lines stand out, demanding to be re-read,

A seed had been planted
beneath his facial hair
and that isn’t the right place
for a seed […]

Amidst it all, the body – and, in particular, the tortured body – is central. The poet asks, ‘how many times can I pick out | my eyelashes before they stop | growing back’? Elsewhere, he evokes ‘Splotched yellow teeth softishly | decaying’ and states, ‘my skin has a zipper. Most days | I pick, pick, pick & is that nostalgia?’ Despite all this tearing, the body won’t stop expanding,

One day we’re going to die
& isn’t that alone enough of a reason
to sit here & watch our nails grow?

A bizarre Q&A-style poem, ‘Where are the worms in my mouth brother in your mouth’, occupies a dozen pages in the middle of the collection. What message can a reader pluck from these eclectic pages? The impossibility of answers? The futility of asking questions? Faced with the words, ‘Q: Dear selfish chemical, do not resuscitate’, on an otherwise blank page, it is hard to know where to begin.

The “real” Q&A, included at the end of the book, provides engrossing insight into a creative mind. ‘Poetry seems good at detecting/recording shades of uncertainty, multiplicity, expansiveness,’ David writes, in response to a question from interviewer Jerrod Schwarz. Ambivalence is certainly key. The mantra-like statements in ‘Three: The Dead’ are fitting: ‘we lived with memory | we have no answers’.

History and its smudginess are acknowledged throughout; the recurring ‘incomplete histories’ are some of the best poems. After memories, cigarettes are another prolific reference: ‘Our oldest friend nicotine’… ‘aluminium in my lungs’… ‘when we snuck out of class & smoked cigarettes’… ‘sour cigarettes’. The poems are as transitory as a puff of smoke; as enduring as the effects of smoking on the lungs.

Subtlety dwells within even the most jam-packed poems. In ‘Other Noise’, buried deep beneath the ocean, sidewalk, newsprint, tomatoes, pears, apple trees, Greek myths, concrete, ice cream, squirt guns, surgical plates, semiotics and paint thinner, are the haiku-esque lines,

we made a self
a fugitive choice
mirror of ache […]

These lines stand out for their slow, contemplative nature despite, or perhaps, because of, the abundance of imagery either side. In the Q&A, David confirms that isolation and context are at the forefront of his mind: ‘What is a specific line saying or doing when freed from the context of what comes before and after?’ This ‘self’, this ‘choice’, this ‘ache’… these are the silences held by one person.

David Greenspan, One Person Holds So Much Silence (Driftwood Press, 2022). Available here.

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