When reading poetry, the expectation often is to encounter stanzas inundated with images or, at least, detailed with a few descriptions. It is shocking, then, to encounter an entire book like Megan Volpert's debut, face blindness, that is nearly devoid of visual imagery. Any time a poet defies the basic expectations of her craft, she risks alienating the reader, or at the very least throwing the reader off balance, but Volpert assures that her choices are intriguing rather than illogical. She compensates so astutely for "the prospect of a given fascinating image" with her heightened sense of verbal acuity that the absense of visual imagery would go unnoticed if not pointed out. Furthermore, she adopts an aesthetic that explains the lack of visual stimuli: her methodical omissions attempt to recreate the world of prosopagnosia, or face blindness.
As visual imagery has no place in the world of prosopagnosics-who are unable to visually recognize or distinguish specific places or objects, most commonly faces, by their unique characteristics-prosopagnosia is Volpert's Oulipian constraint, the result of which is a prominent blur of details. From the virtual absence of punctuation and capitalization to the possibility that three of the volume's poems (which are more akin to a preface, a conclusion, and a biography) are not poems at all, face blindness is, on the surface, defined by indistinction. Many of Volpert's poems float in generic spaces such as "somebody's porch," "that bar," and "my deserted mental landscape" that she clearly recognizes but whose details remain in her peripheral vision. Occasional mention of "the streets of New Orleans" or "at customs in charles de gaulle" do more than enough to steer the blur away from total blindness while maintaining focus on the events attached to each place and the memories that give rise to the distinct personality inhabiting face blindness.
The best expression of face blindness' agenda is not contained in "abstract," in which Volpert claims to describe her "project, which arguably contains research." Rather, "prosopagnosia" best establishes and embodies her overt use of face blindness as a verbal portrait:
this is the mirror and there is my face i thinkVolpert, who identifies herself as "i" in "amor fati," uses face blindness as an unconventional mirror in which to construct her self-portrait. This approach allows for, and in fact demands, the array of confessional poetry she includes. Portraying "i" as incredibly self-aware but not entirely self-assured in "abstract" and "xenoglossolalia," among others, establishes the context for and enhances the significance of poems that rely on the blur of intricate innuendo rather than blatant displays.
something uncanny in the hairline to remember however slightly
the rings on those fingers touching that face are my possessions
those hands are mine and therefore that face is mine reassured
it is alright when you will not believe i cannot recognize myself
fear in its misstep may call a writer a liar but this is not the case
with so many mouths put forward you read something uncanny
you think there is my author and this is the book
While many of Volpert's poems are relatively sedate, a handful put the reader in the mildly uncomfortable but ultimately non-omniscient position of voyeur. In "punctum exercise," a poem about explicit photographs posted on the internet, Volpert elucidates the controls she wields over the reader's vision, remarking, "these snapshots the last orgy before graduation / my closest friends so honestly dirty loving and smiling / my particular favorite / i'm not going to show it to you." Volpert's aptitude for utilizing the unseen is perhaps no more apparent than in "the professor in office 227." Here, "i"'s simultaneously brazen, but teasing sexuality is most apparent, as she refrains from initiating direct physical contact with the object of her attraction:
my palm searching flat against the wall we shareHere, the blur opperates in two realms: on the surface of the poem as a metaphorical wall between poem and reader and as a physical barrier between "i" and the professor. Both voyeurs rely on cues other than the visual to discern the situation: the professor on auditory, the reader on verbal.
writing hand doing its work across its own body
reaching that word he knows without reading
through blank bricks we listen in explicit silence
until my chair squeaks quick three times urgently
enough to know his imagination has not run wild
Verbal intricacies are at work face blindness in myriad ways, not only within the poems but between them. "anne waldman in glass" and "under glass" offer different uses of the same subject; "love letter to roland barthes" and "love letter to noam chomsky" behave like close siblings, sharing the same model and some phrases; and French allusions make a sub-thematic run through seven poems. Seldom does Volpert's intertwining push her poems to the point of co-dependency, but rather mimics the introspective methods Volpert employs within each poem. The sole exception is "symptoms of good editing," which needs the poem it critiques, "past life," in order to be fully affective.
Populated with dated pop-culture references (Nirvana, Iggy Pop, etc.) and frequently situated in the graduate school scene, Volpert's collection has its drawbacks-by nature, it appeals most to a specific generation of Volpert's academic peers. Nonetheless, Volpert's choices are appropriate. Where else would she apprehend her own image but in the places and contexts with which she is most familiar? It is justifiable, then, that poems such as "purpose statement" and "regarding" are situated in the academic realm while nearly all others, especially "best golden retriever ever," are self-referential. The lack of punctuation, at times, makes lines difficult to read, but by no means hinders the comprehensability of any poem. Despite a vague admission that she has lied to the reader and a purposely (and purposefully) blurred aesthetic, Volpert manages to convince the reader that she is not hiding who she is.
Volpert uses the increasingly popular middle-space to showcase the breadth of her talent and the intelligence of her "project," writing from the avant garde to make a point about the traditional. Working through a rebelliously imageless aesthetic, she defies the lens of obscurity constructed by traditional dissociation of poet from poetic persona, spreading her array of identities-graduate student, author, "erudite fascist"-that color her perspective in front of us to piece together poem by poem. In the few instances that Volpert breaks her own pattern of self-awareness, it is only to expose what the absense of personality does to a poem. protesting her agenda, "name pong poetry" employs an additional Oulipian constraint, turning on "i" and refusing to use the vowel in the entire poem. Volpert's refusal to look at herself perhaps demonstrates the frustration of trying to construct her own image from the blur; however, the bleak and dry poem is most clearly an exercise in the absence of personality meant to underscore the postitive implications of Volpert's refusal to distance herself from her work.
face blindness is not simply a collection of poems; it is an argument for interaction, discernment, and vulnerability. Exposing and obscuring herself as a poet and as a person, Volpert makes an engaging, calculated foray into the unexpected, defying tradition by, in essense, becoming her words. Despite the confidence and competence necessary to successfully make clear points by blurring lines, Volpert slyly asks "What did I do?" The answer is this: she has introduced herself.