Reviewed by Max Karpinski
March End Prill. BookThug, 2011.
Simply picking up and turning over March End Prill, the newest book of poetry by Bryan Sentes, offers the reader clues to the text’s concerns and preoccupations. Plastered across the back jacket is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “prill,” the puzzling final word in the collection’s title. An obvious pun on “April,” “prill” also refers to a spinning top, a small stream, a girl, and a piece of copper ore. Before we even read the poems themselves, Sentes reveals to us his keen attention to language, to the history of words and their gradual transformations, and to moments of oversignification that can lead to double entendres, puns, or breakdowns in communication. Such polysemy is just one example of how March End Prill demands an attentive and exacting reader. Sentes revels in doublespeak and layers meaning through spacing, lineation, wordplay, and neologisms. This is a difficult text that challenges its reader, shifts tone, and operates across different lexical registers.
The collection’s opening three lines might best be understood as an overview of the text’s entirety:
‘aieZeus I’m mercurial saturnine melancholic
wounduptight hypersensitive hys
terical the smallest slight sets me off (“A Cut to Bear Night Though” 9)
This opening stanza demonstrates some of the text’s alienating qualities, from the manipulation and transformation of language to the repeated invocation of the poems’ melancholy properties. But, for the reader who proceeds undaunted, March End Prill offers countless moments of aural beauty; only three lines later, we read the arresting description of “leaves yellow leprous black spotted” (9). Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Sentes’s attention to language extends to its sonic qualities. He delights in repetition and alliteration, often crafting strikingly pretty and affective images.
Sentes’s own account of the process of writing March End Prill echoes the demand for an attentive and open reader. In an online interview provided by BookThug (available on YouTube), he invites readers to approach his text as a serial poem that collects voices, news clippings, and conversations. He initially describes the collection as a “poetic diary from October 2002 to April 2003,” an experiment that forced him to write “whatever there was to write” and that involved “a great deal of grasping at straws.” The text, he says, is organized temporally, and is presented in a vaguely linear way.
With this background in mind, reading March End Prill cover to cover becomes a fascinating experience. These poems are about their own writing; they dramatize Sentes’s emotional desire and physical need for self-expression. The text becomes a document of the poet’s writerly ebbs and flows, capturing moments of heightened inspiration alongside moments of crippling depression and dejection. There are ruts in the text’s trajectory, groupings of poems in which Sentes becomes increasingly frustrated with the voices that intrude into the space of the page and increasingly self-deprecating and self-ridiculing:awh can’t
do a thing
stoned allatime (“I know” 34)
These moments of unsuccessful expression represent a different sort of alienation for the reader: it is difficult to respond to poetry that sounds, at first anyway, like a bad Livejournal entry. March End Prill is filled with instances such as these, which detail personal and writerly failures. Poems that candidly describe the speaker’s drug use, depression, or sex life (“never / even having once / analized anybody” ) play cheekily with the tropes of confessional poetry. Sentes even acknowledges this connection to confessionalism when he laments that he is “Still writing poetry in the manner of forty years ago” (62). Perhaps a more fruitful model with which to compare such writing would be social media. Rather than “poetry in the manner of forty years ago,” this is poetry for the internet age: attuned to history and to the past, but oriented toward and grounded strictly in the present moment.
In March End Prill, Sentes folds together supposedly intimate, personal experiences while simultaneously allowing exterior information to intrude. His poems interrogate how we write in the twenty-first century, in front of a screen, perpetually connected to almost endless stores of data. He copies and pastes text from an “Idaho parish bulletin online,” keeping the website’s original typeface (29); he quotes the voice of a “big marine in Qatar” on the news (43); he cuts up George Bush’s March 18, 2003 address to the nation (46). He foregrounds and emphasizes such fragmentation and celebrates his aleatory structures. March End Prill reads like a profoundly and profitably disorienting RSS feed (bad Livejournal and all), the outcome of a concentrated effort by Sentes to open up each moment of writing to chance encounters and random intrusions. The completed text becomes a site that is multiple and open, a space in which the poet’s body, the act of writing, history, and everyday experience mingle and refract and collapse into one another.
At press time: Max Karpinski is a second year Master's Student in English Literature at McGill University who primarily studies contemporary experimental North American poetry. He is the Poetry Editor of the Scrivener Creative Review.
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