Monday, August 25, 2008


I have often mused aloud in this space why many American academics have taken a dislike to the surrealist aesthetic. There are many reasons why this has become the norm rather than the exception. Some include a disdain for the kind of surrealism that propels progressive rock bands to forge their names, the great disdain for a pop adaptation of an once-challenging aesthetic movement; another is that so much of the time surrealism’s distance from reality is off-putting. The way things are is quite interesting too. Boilerplate surrealism tends to overvalue the realm of the purely imaginary without paying homage to the fact that it is imagined.

Bill Rasmovicz’s The World In Place of Itself is an acknowledgment of that distance within surrealism, yet there is a very real intent to root the otherworldliness in direct experience. The images are grounded. In this way they represent more of the Eastern European branch of surrealism rather than the French and Spanish versions. The feel is similar to the great anthology of pre- and post-war Serbian poetry edited by Charles Simic The Horse Has Six Legs. There is even a Na Zdravje thrown in for added authentic flavor in the poem “Assimilation.”

This is not the surrealism of Dali and Tanguy painting their distortions of space. Nor is it the surrealism of Magritte-like logical absurdity. Rasmovicz’s poetry is where folk painting meets the development of a more complicated context, a world of things that is so unique it must be represented as directly experienced. It’s rendering of the world is the same as the odd juxtapositions of a man whose personal collection of objects contains a little bit of everything. An American attic surrealism. In Rasmovicz’s case, that little bit of everything is his collection of language and things in the world represented by that language.

But he has updated the old world Slavic style to include the furniture of a contemporary American life. No one would expect Popa to invoke “a desolate factory yard consecrated by bullet casings and chemical spill.” or “The evenings smell of tar, methane,” and “graffiti where no one can reach, someone scouring the dumpster with the instrumentation reserved for picking a lock.” The unexpected modern intrusions are usually of a gritty nature, one that can easily be contained within the largely old world feel. These modern intrusions are kept to a minimum, and more often than not Rasmovicz invokes more time-honored objects into his collection of featured language.

The effect is what happens when Transylvania and the suburbs of New Jersey merge. This can be quite a mess if these are forced. In general, this is another objection raised by academics to surrealism. In the worst hands it can be brutally forced. This is the greatest pleasure in reading Rasmovicz. Never does it feel forced. The imagery is propelled with a great ease. It seems to emanate from the slow burn of visual experience instead of the mind’s quick crucible of melded language. Despite the fantastic images, the poems feel lived in. The world is filtered through all of Rasmovicz’s sensory mechanisms. It is not quickly assembled to create an arcane object for others to gawk at.

In the title poem, Rasmovicz creates a scene where the presence of human longing seems miraculous, just the hope for a kind of desire appears as a marvel among the rather grim imagery. This is a world that seems on the verge of falling apart or becoming exposed to bacterial decay. One can almost feel the sepia tones creeping along the skin as you read.

The World In Place of Itself

The pressure coiled in my ears, I’d wake:
only trampled grass outside where the hoists and pulleys
were dragged away.

A steepletop prodded the sky to bursting,
though somehow the air was filled again with air.
The light at once arriving and having

always been, these were mornings after which the crows
had their long conversations with the dead
and silence could not be heard for its breaking.

At 8:00 a.m., a man floated by on the scent of his newspaper’s
promise and perils.
I could hardly believe the scaffolding of my bones

would hold, how my blood seized
and began again, seamless. Neighbors spoke shruggingly
and if there was talk of love

there was talk of war. Leaves taunted the wind
for more wind, and the sea, gnawed free of the moon,
flapped at the listless shore, resolute with going nowhere.

While through to each follicle,
the sensation: not desire, but a desire for desire,
and hardly even that.

So is Rasmovicz’s world one that can be inhabited only by depressives who wonder where hope and wonder went in the world? Certainly it is a world that seems to be punctuated by solitary investigations, but there is such beauty and care taken in crafting the images of this world that one senses a distinct joy in its presence despite some initially-perceived dreariness. It is a world carved out of some rich, dark hard wood. It is something that is hard to get through, but if one does, a thing of beauty arises at the end.

In ”Ars Metaphysica” a magical persists, a world that enjoys its own distinct alchemy of tire smoke and moon-eyes and soul-possessing wolves. But from the very first line we see that the landscape is one that exists in the head. It is imagined. This is another rhetorical move that separates Rasmovicz from boilerplate surrealism. The surrealist ethos is to posit a world that is beyond the naturally occurring one, or a world that happens in the interstices of the naturally occurring one. Rasmovicz, however, is not keen to this delusion. He, more realistically, posits his world as an imagined one. The author’s (and presumably the reader’s) consciousness serves as the filter between the naturally-occurring one and the imagined one. Rasmovicz is honest about his imagination’s machinations.

This would provide an insight to the title of the book. The world In place of itself suggests that while you were sleeping Rasmovicz decided to rearrange the furniture of the real world, free substituting one image with any other image that occurs. Of course, the nd result of this is that the furniture of one’s consciousness as it perceives that dar other world is also rearranged. In this way, Rasmovicz restores the classic mission of the surrealists (and he is more honest about this process) with his title.

It seems to me that the alteration of consciousness is an aesthetic aim of the surrealists that too often is neglected by them. The image play of many surrealists seems an affectation (another reason why many academics hate surrealists).

Rasmovicz’s world also exhibits a certain transparency. In ”On Becoming Light” the speaker’s hand transforms into light and then flies away like a bird. All of this suggests Rasmovicz’s world lost substantiality. Things seemed to pulse toward the brightness but now that seems hopeless. Even the shopworn notion of love is what is killing the speaker and the occupants of Rasmovicz’s world. The only form of redemption is the inexplicable magic of the place. To the extent one can rely on the magic of the natural world penetrating one’s body, then one can be all right in Rasmovicz’s world.

Rasmovicz’s experience and training as a pharmacist might provide some explanation as to why he has sought this dark world as refuge in his book. Often it is with the scripted understanding of the world via chemistry and biology that one seeks to take refuge in a more magical realm. I often found myself longing for more wonder as I made my way through my scientific training. The diagrams and equations made for a kind of unsettling certainty and confidence about the clockwork of the natural world. The majesty is often lost. Often it is poetry’s place to reseed the majesty, the unknown so that it can flourish again outside of human understanding.

One might also speculate amusingly that Rasmovicz’s knowledge of pharmacy has opened the doors of perception into his dark world. But oh how jaded I have become. Pharmaceuticals are not magic!

But with the remorse felt for the loss of the unknown, there is also a supplemental social concern, a desire for the unknown other.


Because of his limp I noticed him approaching,
a blister from too-tight shoes,
the bulk of his frame coerced into women’s attire.
His hair was sort of a landscape-of-Mars orange.

and his makeup, fermenting honeydew.
As a woman he wasn’t convincing. Not the gender
was the issue, but it looked painful,
and his struggle, mythic: man against himself,

his gaze fixed to where the sole of his shoe was loose
and stuttering now at the sidewalk.
Heat was rising from the pavement, the humidity
bearing down. He looked up, he gravity of my eyes

drawing his. I looked away—
how can the body feel so much
unlike itself as to believe it is someone else?
Who is it we should have been all along

and what part of our nature is in fact transmutable?
The cars were floating by like clouds.
The clouds, diminishing in the pink light of an August
almost gone. But given that we were all

what we may not have had in mind, who amongst us
hasn’t sought refuge outside themselves from
the heart’s inclement weather?
Should I say hello? The arc of his posture was a wave

about to break. And who was I to think he was
someone other than himself?
At that moment we passed each other, my voice
a stone in my throat, my throat collapsing into itself.

How do I acquire sympathy for the world,
an understanding of what it is to be you, when
the only way to know you is to be you?
I turned to look; he was small in the distance.

In the artifice of my body, I was small.
The pink light was gray. The sound of the cars, gray.
An almost criminal silence.
Then, sadness: I was afraid for us both.

Again the baseline motion for the piece is an all-pervasive sadness. Everything boils down to a longed-for perfect sympathy that can’t be achieved. There are seemingly a lot of very high expectations placed on this world, an after-effect of Rasmovicz ‘s inhabiting a scientific world where everything glimmers with the patina of being perfectly explained, perfectly functional. Falling short of the presumed optimal goal leaves fear and sadness to dominate.

What does this mean to have a filter of consciousness that provides a frothy world with more that is ephemeral than what is hard, substantial able to emit joy? Is this signaling a basic distrust of consciousness to provide for that which is ultimately satisfying? Is the filter of consciousness an object worn down by the visible world? Rasmovicz seems to distrust any notion that such a filter is capable of supplying anything other than its gothic charm. But perhaps this assumed weight is what allows the reader to take Rasmovicz’s world seriously as an objet d’art.

Despite the weight of what feels like a world borne out of hanging around in Europe’s great cathedrals, the craft and attentive care paid to the specific images wrought are more than ample reward for reading this book. If you love great imagery, then this book will surely not disappoint.

If, however, you are looking for a book that informs one about one’s contemporary historical moment in America, then one may need to look elsewhere unless one presumes that Rasmovicz is positing the US as a rather sad and ineffectual place, a place with its spiritual core barely intact.

The time and place are more reminiscent of Yugoslavia or the Czech Republic with the war’s aftermath lingering in the fabric of everything. Indeed, Rasmovicz invokes a war in lines from “Resumption”, such as “No one recognized the bars over their windows or the stains of war.” This could be read as a nod in the direction of the current predicament in Iraq, especially in the closing lines: “A man threw seed to his chickens like it was holy water, / while springing up from the dirt all around me / like tiny islands, the Roman empire.

Mostly, though, The World in Place of Itself is interested in looking at the emotional qualities of a world whose objects have been unmoored from their traditional contexts. The result is remorse for the lost world, it seems, as well as an acknowledgment for the dark beauty of the created world.

In ”The Accordion” (the version on this site is slightly misspelled and edited from the version that appears in the book) the afterlife has stolen away too, a relic. Everything that could possibly bring meaning has been bombed out. But by what? One has a tendency to ask. Perhaps it isn’t too far to read many of these poems as commentary on American spiritual malaise.

In “Manifest Destiny” Rasmovicz is speaking with more of a directness to an America than he is in nearly every other piece in the book.

<Manifest Destiny

Waking up, my eyes crumbled bricks,
my breathing labored from traipsing all night through

the catacombs of sleep. There were wars going on.
You could see it in the lay of their faces.

Dogs coursed through the streets with their own agenda.
Clothes flagged the alleyways. I too was trying to forget

who I was or wasn’t; my focus, the blister forming between
my toes from new sandals, where one might obtain

a cappuccino. Hansom boats lined the pier,
and tourists with new tans brandishing cameras, waiting

for the perfect subtropical sunset. Gardens were
strategically planted at the intersections, palms imported,

buildings painted adamant shades of pink and yellow.
There was at least the ambiance of someone trying.

Still, how could one help but wonder what the sea was
muttering behind the afternoon’s hazy sheen?

which receded, wave after truckling wave on the rocks,
and everyone so painfully absorbed in their own role:

the trees, bathers floating on their backs and cars
revving by; all of them, bawdy actors. Stand-ins merely

to make manifest the mind’s perambulations,
as even the merest absence is less than can be imagined.

What a besieged place. Is this America? The title seems to suggest so. The end result from so much longing, so much pushing outward, pushing west is absence. Even the absence is less, though, than the absence the mind can supply.

The mind’s perambulations are blessing the absence. They supply the absence. All knowing is lost. Is this the final frontier of despair? Perhaps in America as we begin to imagine our loss, we will also inhabit it in the naturally-occurring world.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved this book, but before you read it you should be prepared to get your inoculations against despair and loss. Don’t expect the mind to come and bail you out. In Rasmovicz’s world, the mind is what is stirring up all the trouble in the first place. The World in Place of Itself is world-weary and seeking respite in the darkness of an elsewhere, a yesteryear, an emotionally-barren plane of existence.

But if you keep coming back to The Horse Has Six Legs as I find myself doing in times of trouble, frustration with this world, and existential crisis, Bill Rasmovicz’s The World in Place of Itself is an indispensable volume.