To and From

To and From,
by G. E. Patterson, Ahsahta Press, 2008,
74 pages, paper, $17.50,
ISBN: 978-0-916272-99-9

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Sometimes a book surprises you before you even start reading.  That’s what happened to me when I first opened G. E. Patterson’s To and From.  When I turned to the first poem and saw the epigraph “ . . . you?” (1) left-justified, followed by “ . . . and touch . . . ” (1) right-justified in the white space above the title, I was a little taken aback before I even got to the poem itself.  I flipped through the book and saw that every poem had a splatter of quotations hanging above, and often below, the title.  Even stranger than the placement was the nature of the quotes; these were not your usual epigrams, but fragments made up of workaday words.  I was suspicious.  This looked a lot like experiment for experiment’s sake; a writer concerned more with impressive flourishes than actual good writing.  I was very, very wrong.

As it turns out these strange epigraphs aren’t fluff at all, but something of a thought cloud that the poems seep out of, and which hangs around the poems like mist.  They set the tone for each poem before the poem proper even begins.  Patterson has taken an old idea and shattered it, rearranging the fragments into something new and honestly breathtaking.  He takes the same approach with the poems that follow these epigraphs.

The book is divided into four sequences of poems that are almost all fourteen lines long.  These elements scream sonnet, but these poems aren’t exactly sonnets.  Besides not having a regular meter or rhyme scheme, the volta comes wherever it wants (excuse me, needs ) to, and there’s often more than one turn in the poem.  This element is more reminiscent of the haiku than the sonnet.  I also hear echoes of haiku in the understated tone of the poems, and the quiet way the lines jump from image to image, scene to scene, and concrete detail to far-reaching abstraction.

Through all these linguistic and formal gymnastics, the diction remains relatively basic, which helps to keep these radical poems readable.  The syntax, though not always simple, is straightforward, and follows a rhetorical logic that guides the reader through the poems, making what could be very difficult reading seem effortless, without sacrificing any depth.  In fact, these poems open up to great depths, and that openness can be seen in Patterson’s formal choices, even in his punctuation.  He either does away with punctuation altogether, or uses it to his own ends, favoring ellipses over periods.  Both decisions open up the form and the poems.

In doing all this to poems shaped like a sonnets, Patterson has taken what may be the most well-known and well-used form in all of Western poetry and turned it on its head.  He did not do this for shock value, or to show off formal virtuosity (which he has in spades, by the way), but because it was the right thing to do.  This form serves these poems so well it seems to have grown out of them organically.  The fragmented, open form and quiet, almost cold tone, work to display what is at the heart of these poems: an anonymous compassion.

The speaker is focused on moments of loss, but more focused on the way that all humans share in these moments, and that our shared understanding of loss gives us an important common ground.  The speaker never personalizes loss, but rather makes personal loss universal.  Patterson can sum up this compassion of anonymity better than I can, and, in several places, he does.  In “Salvation Remedy,” he aligns second and first person pronouns for a direct statement of shared humanity, “You are myself and I the upstairs neighbor” (9).  In “The Yellow Wood,” he gives us, “The pillow of someone once wept upon / That loss you know might become anyone” (43).

That is what these poems sing of, “That loss you know might become anyone,” and every aspect of the poems works to make that idea deeper and clearer.  The fragmentary nature of the poems creates a feeling of being overwhelmed by waves of images and emotions coming from all angles.  The reader is left stunned and floating on this sea, “Like now with again some feeling ourselves / So that everything can wash over you” (56).  These waves roll in one after another until the reader forgets who is the speaker of the poem, who is the subject of the poem, and exactly where the reader himself fits into all of this.  It is a mesmerizing experience, like staring out over the ocean, which, like these poems, is at once tranquil and turbulent and unfathomably deep.  Dive in, the water’s great.

Henry Kearney, IV