Reviewed by Jen Bartlett
Perennial: Poems Selected & New Volume 2. Harmonia Press, 2011.
There is no reality; there is only perception. Such is Andreas Gripp’s mantra throughout his latest anthology, Perennial: Poems Selected & New Volume 2. In his Foreword, Gripp remarks that “the time [is] inevitably coming [when] … the flight of the birds and the spin of the stars need to be observed with the silent reverence of the unwritten” (np). Perennial, however, deals with the written and is—to quote the byline of Gripp’s Twitter account—“mired in the mundane.” This is a work that both relishes and celebrates the grubby, petty minutiae of postmodern life while simultaneously finding it repulsive.
Gripp’s dissatisfaction with society’s assumed “license to squalor” (“Bob, Hospital Janitor” 2) and complacent belief in constructs is evident on almost every page. “September 11th”, for example, brilliantly tackles the connotations with which we imbue dates and the manner in which we mediate those connotations. Although stating “I want my September / 11th back, without the carnage / that now comes with it” (52), Gripp also reveals the flawed nature of the speaker’s nostalgia. “My” September 11th is only wanted “as a late summer day, / with a sun / that warms our arms” (52). For all that the speaker mourns the loss of September 11th’s ordinariness, he is incapable of according that ordinariness the status it deserves. Instead he converts it to a halcyon day, obliterating the normality that he claims to have prized.
Like Tennyson’s Tithonus, “Love and the Human Condition” focuses on love’s reaction in the face of corporeal deterioration. Gripp’s words, however, lack Tennyson’s lyrical cadence; instead these verse meters have the stark (supposed) reality of Nabokov, who “told it like it is” (“She’s the Bookworm of Santo Domingo” 4). The blunt lines and harsh consonance that spit out Gripp’s distaste have their own terrible beauty as he dismantles our imagined safety net with elegant and precise imagery. “Love and the Human Condition” ends with a promise to love the speaker’s partner in the future, regardless of her imagined “crinkled cheeks, / the way her spine is now hunch- / backed, / how the warts / afflict her face / and how her hair / is ratty-white” (42). Souring the romantic ideal of an eternal love with the realities of an ephemeral body, though, is not enough. As his speaker makes the promise, Gripp taints the present too by concluding that the speaker is “bearing witness / to a future / I would have prayed / to stay unseen” (42). What could have been a rash and idealized—if almost certainly untenable—promise is denied even the redemptive element of being well intended. Instead, Gripp forcibly reveals the “promise” to be a barefaced act of lying, shocking the reader out of their world-weary, complacent cynicism, and forcing him to question his supposedly realistic viewpoint.
The proverbial “fly in the ointment” of Gripp’s postmodern malaise, and his relentless distaste for the clichés that surround us, is that it gets a bit, well, clichéd. As his “Another word for beautiful” claims, “The words are all worn out,” and “frayed from overuse” (100). And that’s the rub. Perennial self-consciously deals in shop-soiled goods. Furthermore, it is not a collection for those who read more than one or two poems at a time. To do so is to deaden the effect of Gripp’s vision, as it engenders a different complacency in the reader. It creates a culture of expectation, causing us to dismantle our own constructs before Gripp does, which in turn causes some of his poems to lose their shock value. Sometimes this effect works to considerable advantage: “Regarding the Pitfalls of Finer Dining” is one of the collection’s stronger poems, but it conforms to Gripp’s enterprise so well that its successor, “With Dora, After the Divorce”, simply feels tired in comparison. As the latter poem describes the now-civilized meetings between the once-warring spouses, yet still laments the loss of violent emotion and “fiercest fire” (46), so the reader’s feelings are made to echo those of the husband. We too can “now … sigh with relief” as the assault eases (46). Similarly, by the time we reach “Percussion”, the third successive poem on the theme of failing relationships, tedium is starting to creep in, mimicking that of the bored speaker who only looks at his stripping partner “when the congas / kicked in and when the columnist / talked of tax” (48).
At times, however, Gripp overplays his hand. “Michael Jackson isn’t Dead” lacks the subversive subtlety and impact of “September 11th,” for example. The whimsical poignancy of “Tokyo” and “The girl I would have married” tips a little too far into saccharine, faux-naïve kitsch. These examples, though, serve to highlight the masterly way in which Perennial deconstructs our perceptions of daily life and shifts the sands we think lie under our feet.
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At press time: Jen Bartlett has a BA in Combined Arts from the University of Durham, and an MA in English Literature from McGill University. She is currently studying for an MA in Medieval Literatures at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies. She has published on Don DeLillo and ideas of literature as terrorism, but infinitely prefers medieval travel writing, The Boke of John Mandeville, and thinking about Purgatory.