Seth Landman’s Sign You Were Mistaken reviewed by Connor Fisher

 

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Sign You Were Mistaken
Seth Landman

71 pp., pbk.
Factory Hollow Press
$15.00

Sign You Were Mistaken, Seth Landman’s debut collection of poetry, posits the poet as an observer: an insular figure who watches the world while remaining aloof from it, and who is consequently enabled to have a distinct (if not necessarily privileged) viewpoint concerning issues of place, the interior versus exterior, motion & stasis, and the benefits and detriments of individuality. For Landman, the poet’s primary affect is anxiety; this is mirrored in the tone of nervous energy that pervades most of the book. Landman’s persona, and the verse which he creates, is typically anxious or uneasy about the binaries and tensions that confront people living in our world—however, this is not an anxiety that generates paralysis or fear and withdrawal from reality. To the contrary, the anxiety of Sign You Were Mistaken is enabling and propels the poet. Risking an archaic vocabulary, it seems that anxiety and trepidation provide the poet’s inspiration.

In exploring the roots of both anxiety and curiosity, the book frequently uses metaphors of containment or encapsulation, as in “The Way I Use My Land,” where Landman writes,

To hit the moon, you have a nest in it.
Instead of the walls, folks, instead
of spending a month in a retirement
swamp, tune into weeds, the hum of dirt
cheap dirt. It’s all water about us,
palliating. Apartment all feeling, all
masonry and open air. (12)

This type of meditation upon interiority (the “retirement swamp” and “apartment”) occurs frequently throughout Sign You Were Mistaken and could slip into the territory of the blasé, were it not for Landman’s dexterous poetic sensibilities and his ability to inject dry humor into poems at moments when they might otherwise become tedious.

In many poems, Landman also fleshes out the book’s concerns by crafting complex series of sentences and lines that are interconnected but not particularly associative. In eschewing the associative lineation prevalent among both contemporary and historical poets, in which a line is thematically linked to or determined by the preceding and following lines, Landman alters the nature of the poem as well as the reader’s experience of the work. In such a poetic sequence, the distinct sentences are placed into arbitrary relation by the poem; this forces the reader to identify (or create) points where meaning adheres in the text and where it slips away or fails to accrete. Landman’s frequently abrupt style also operates as a formal extension of the book’s thematic concerns; it mirrors the nervous energy displayed throughout Sign You Were Mistaken. The resulting collage takes on a tone of hesitation and insularity, as if the poems were reluctant to engage too deeply or for too long with the outside world. “Longer Doves” exemplifies such a sequence:

The material inside makes some magic
rustle outside in the corn. That’s a command
from a central location, and also, keep your
movements rectangular, lest they grow agile
and disruptive. Now’s where I remember. (25)

Sign You Were Mistaken frequently foregrounds statements and imagery of motion, progression, and means of transit, whether metaphorical or literal. Poems reference trespassing spatial boundaries and use these moments to propel the constantly inquisitive tone of the book. In “The Four Questions,” Landman writes,

All of my concerns were needless. I carried the quilt outside. An airplane blinked across the sky and I thought about all of the commandments. How could I dream of them? How could I have invented this? (40)

These gestures round out the poetics of Sign You Were Mistaken; Landman’s authorial persona is dissatisfied with interiority and the contained inner space; his anxiety pulls back from encountering the world’s otherness, yet is drawn on by a desire to experience, transgress, and understand.

 

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Fisher_portrait-1Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.