Book Reviews | Literary Arts

Lance Larsen’s Genius Loci

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In the wake of a spate of articles and rebuttals on the “death” and usefulness of poetry, on its accessibility, and other catalysts of infighting amongst schools of poets, Lance Larsen’s new collection, Genius Loci, came as welcome relief. Many of Larsen’s poems transcend such specialization and erudition. They are a reminder of what drew me to poetry in the first place – the nearly alchemical power of pointed observation and comparison, the irrepressible urge to make the unexplainable one’s own.  So it was appropriate that he should include the poem “To Alchemy” amongst a section of odes in the book, which begins:

                 Salt crystals turning into sea monkeys, salamanders
                 into witches,…
                  …Here I am, middle-aged
                  and mortgaged, and still I believe.
                  sitting down to play Chopin, I hope
                  to be converted into electric mist
                  or a flock of wrens. When my father died,
                  I went bowling—anything to transform
                  the avalanche behind my breastbone
                  into crashes I could hear.

It is a rare poet that can make such self-effacing transformations routine, but that is one hallmark of Genius Loci. However, it is the less monumental moments– the “serenely electric body of a nursing mother at Denny’s,” the passive acquiescence of riders to an escalating domestic dispute on their bus, the “spoon carrying gruel to the dowager’s mouth” that becomes the heart of an ode – that, like those mourning pins, offer the hard crashing of one thing into another but result in quiet, nuanced examinations of human weakness and compassion.

Given the current dearth of Latin education, using the word genius in one’s book title, particularly a book of poetry, could be easily construed as a particularly ostentatious move. Even this reader, who should know better, paused for a moment at the title before going back to my OED (most online dictionaries can’t even be bothered with etymologies anymore) to remind myself of all the connotations of that word. That moment of refamiliarizing myself with protective spirits and generative powers  inherent to genius reminded me of a characteristic of Larsen’s work as a whole – there is no pretense in these poems but their simplicity cannot be taken for granted either.

The incarnations and guardians that populate the places of Larsen’s poems are rarely the anthropomorphic beings of classic literature. More often they are animals, both wild with life and bloated and dismembered in death. Their perpetual presence is a fact Larsen self-consciously notes, as illustrated by the book’s second poem “Why Do You Keep Putting Animals in Your Poems?,” but not before opening the collection with a collection of stunning animal scenes, “rituals” of place to which we have largely lost access:

Horses are praying the old-fashioned way, trotting
                  a fenced field at twilight under a towel  of moon…

                  Like the owl, I’ll take my wages in mice and falling
                  stars, take my midnights in the middle of the day.

The animals of these poems go about their business, largely unconcerned and unaware of their human spectators, despite the figurative roles their appetites and instincts play in shedding light on our own baffling human inconsistencies. Even when the human and animal paths intersect, as they do in “Owning the Snake,” it is clear that it is far easier to superimpose their morals upon our lives than it is to impose ours upon theirs. After relenting to his daughter’s cries when she witnesses a snake devouring two chicks from a bird’s nest, the speaker yanks the snake from the tree, only to spare his life, admitting that “this serpent I thought I owned, taking / some swallowed part of us into a darker fold.” The opening of this same poem is but one example of how easy it is to wish that all naturalists and biologists possessed Larsen’s lyricism after he begins:

Gorgeous and unnerving, the way he laddered
                               his body, all six feet of him, up to the first branch,
                         then used the collateral of his own sinewy loops

                  to cantilever himself higher, limb by limb,
                               rising in the pear tree like some highly evolved law
                      of deceit: awe zeroing my blood, sun dropping,

There are moments when the metaphors in the poems pile up, when the lyricism threatens to topple the work entirely into sentiment, as in “The Most Spider Part of Me,” in which the apotheosis of a spider (and its conflation with the speaker) extends a few sections too far, or in “To Duende,” where the ethereal ending overrides a powerful earthly experience (and Lorca makes a predictable appearance). But more often than not, Larsen deftly maintains a balance between such moments and moments of grounding and humor that consistently unravel seemingly established patterns. Often these moments appear in lists and litanies, favorite forms of Larsen in the book, including “Nothing Happy,” in which the speaker numbers unmet expectations, noting that “We are each a bingo parlor / dreaming of a knife fight, a worn copy of Ulysses hoping / to be burned” only to end in a couplet on the separation of body and soul at death that is equally humorous and tragic:

                  Blood says, I’ve always wanted to travel by myself.
                  Spirit whispers, finally a chance to grow my own fur.

Likewise, in “Tired,” a long list of things that exhaust the speaker is dismantled in the closing stanzas by a moment that simultaneously illustrates the deceptively simple observational prowess of Larsen’s work and the antithesis of such a skill, a deficiency all too familiar to those of us living ever-online lives:

Texting beside his rest home bed,
                  when she should have memorized 
                  the stale air, bruises on his arm linked
                  like the Great Lakes,
                  the orange pad on the floor in case he rolled off,

Lest the excerpts in this review misrepresent the tone of the book as a whole, it should be noted that though Larsen writes exquisitely about the loss and deaths of loved ones and even animals, Genius Loci is by no means a eulogy or a book of mourning. It is alive and fluid and blossoming at every turn, be it children jouncing and gyrating “as if trying to coax rain out of the wispy clouds” or a geriatric marathon runner who nears the finish line and, as if “peering out at a new world, he tipped / back his head as if drinking the sky and he howled.” Larsen’s poems possess a startling clarity that creates broad vistas of longing and living from the briefest of moments.  Here it is genius that is in the details, the protective force rooted firmly in both our most perceptible and our most vulnerable of places. Like the dancing grandniece at the funeral in “Between the Heaves of the Storm,” Larsen’s poems leave “Any worries about the next life set spinning / for now in reassuring orbits, rattly pink.”

Genius Loci
by Lance Larsen
University of Tampa Press (2013)

Michael McLane’s work has appeared in numerous journals, including Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, and Sidebrow. He is the co-editor of the journal saltfront and the review editor for Sugar House Review. He lives in Salt Lake, where he works as the Literary Program Officer for the Utah Humanities Council.

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