Review of Megan Volpert’s book the desense of nonfense

BlazeVOX [books], $16.00 (paperback)

By: Matt Erik Katch

Jump to his Interview with Megan Volpert.

John Keats once wrote in a letter to Georgiana Keats, “Twang-dillo-dee—this you must know is the amen to nonsense. I know a good many places where Amen should be scratched out … and in its place Twang-dillo-dee written.”  Nearly 200 years later, nonsense is in need of a champion, and Megan A. Volpert has risen to the occasion with her second full-length book of poetry, the desense of nonfense. Like several of Keats’s letters, Volpert strays from honesty into confession, and her surrealist attitudes offer new insights into this seemingly inexplicable realm. This is not unexpected of Volpert, as she has already displayed her affinities for surrealism and New York school confessionalism, and maintains several of her conventions, including a complete absence of punctuation and the use of only lowercase letters. What sets this work apart is the greater depth it displays and the maturity of the poet.

Admittedly, some problems similar to ones found in her first book, face blindness, remain. The arguments in the desense of nonfense can be hard to follow and the near Joycean complexity of wordplay can often be seen as too demanding of its readers.  Attempts to use “jon stewart,” “simon cowell,” as well as other characters to invite the reader into the game do not always succeed, and instead the reader is left wanting. It is also difficult to imagine several of the poems on their own outside the context of the book. Many of the demonstrative poems read like an example sentence in a foreign language textbook, serving no unique or individual purpose. An ideal reader for this work is someone who appreciates the challenges, pleasures, and foibles of language.  Such faith will not go unrewarded; a splendor emerges in lines such as “divine logic in ratio / circling a small given number / in search of something equal to what we dream” (65).

The book does attempt to help its readers along by structuring itself into four sections.  The first of these—“fashion and subjection”—addresses some of what is often taken for granted or assumed about nonsense, and proposes some answers to questions raised by the work. What makes the poetry particularly enjoyable is that it does not read like a critical essay, but instead uses the methods of surrealism to display its argument. “definition” is an early poem that plays out like a surrealist walk-through of tropes: “the leopard skin is the fur coat lady / a yellow car the baseball cap is a cab” (18). The poem also serves to demonstrate the paradox between nonsense and meaning. Lines such as “in the horizon / dividing intent and translation / is the lair of nonsense / but then nonsense does not exist” make a strong suggestion that “nonsense does not exist” because people cannot conceive of something without “intent and translation,” which we might also call meaning. We are tempted to say that a difficult poem is nonsense because we cannot discern its purpose; no matter what the words or symbols on the page are, we assume there is some meaning and work to decipher it. A similar play relating meaning and reality is made in her poem “how to read,” which opens with the lines “the concierge will know / but then there is no real concierge / and then no real” (20). This struggle between meaning and meaninglessness proceeds throughout the book, and is only one example of the many complex language issues that Volpert’s poems seek to address. Staging reality within literary terminology, Volpert begins her work by inviting the reader into her thoughts, which operate like an unsolvable Rubik’s cube, both amusing and logically confounding. What else could we expect from a defense of nonsense?

Several of the later poems take the interesting task of privileging experience over esoteric meaning by constructing narratives that read like out-of-place anecdotes.  “1680: a space odyssey” displays this readily with its first few lines: “there was a sort of sniffling under our desk / and thus we found the earl of rochester’s nose / with hardly a scratch or a speck of lint on it” (35). Later poems, such as “bell boggle taco,” go so far as to disembowel lines of all but their most basic underlying form, for example: “ketchup scratch laughing and sporks a sonnet” (47).  Even with as difficult lines as these, we look for meaning, try to discern the intent with which they were written, and also try to translate them into a more recognizable form. These moments in the book often seem less like an argument about nonsense and more like an investigation of essence. What is essential to meaning? Perhaps, it is nonsense, which of course “does not exist.” These later poems paint a picture of what the overall puzzle box looks like. Rather than delving further through explanation, Volpert extends her defense via demonstration.

As it was mentioned earlier, several of Volpert’s previous tactics play starring roles in this new work, not least of all the recurrence of our guide, “the narrator” that is Megan Volpert, and Volpert’s truly human honesty that prevails in her confessions. Her poem “weaknesses” conveys this masterfully: “does not consider parallel parking an art form / flushed two mostly alive cockroaches / willingness to leave toothpaste flecks on the mirror” (74). This takes the poetry beyond the realm of just an amalgamation of academic jargon and theory, putting Volpert on even-footing with the reader. It takes her down from her narrative position of power, and allows the reader to interact with a more real and immediate life of the author. The poems are a Rubik’s cube that manages to emote and to breathe—this is the source of Volpert’s quality, and what led John Yau to comment, “just when you thought confessional poetry had collapsed.”  Whether or not you concede defeat to the irregular logic that comprises Volpert’s the desense of nonfense, there still remains this element of watching confessionalism and surrealism play in the sandbox, and in many ways, grow up together through the poetry.