Sign You Were Mistaken, by Seth Landman. Hadley, Massachusetts: Factory Hollow Press. 72 pages. $15.00, paper.
In my initial reading of Sign You Were Mistaken, I experienced a sensation that I’ve never associated with poetry before. When I drive—and I assume that this happens to everyone—I zone out, and when I regain consciousness, there is the satisfaction of abridging my commute, given that I was only aware for a portion of it; however, there is also the panic that I might have run a stop sign or sideswiped a pedestrian. The first emotion is novel but nonetheless inconsequential, but the second emotion is stubborn and sires a Janus-like consciousness, where I scrutinize the past for any injured pedestrians and scrutinize the present for any stop signs. That is, I am wrenched from mental wanderlust to intense vigilance. Now, I’m not suggesting that Landman’s collection is a dull ride. No, I’m saying that it travels from idea to idea so smoothly that it’s easy to be soothed into insensibility, but upon this realization, the reader furrows his or her brow so that no idea, no destination will be overlooked. I first felt this sensation in “A Secret Sympathy,” the book’s longest poem:
The ocean leaned out towards the horizon.
A fish was struggling on
my line and when I saw it
emerge ten feet underwater I knew
it was only a small shark.
Could you keep it?
It was a symbol.
My hands were freezing
and the oar I held was weightless
while I pushed through the lake
back to the car.
These lines trade one association for another so well, not to mention their position a page into this long poem, just where the reader begins to acclimate, that the reader might miss the exchange of “ocean” for “lake.” The poem’s movement from ocean, to fishing, to boating, to lake is so second nature that, like driving, the mind might not perceive the journey. For Sign You Were Mistaken, though, the journey is utmost, and the reader must foster that Janus-like consciousness to fully appreciate it.
Not only does the book travel from idea to idea, but it also travels from location to location, covering broad swaths of America, like Whitman in miniature. Here is a brief survey in order of appearance: “New England,” “Deerfield River,” “Route 9,” “Chattanooga,” “Lookout Mountain,” “University of New Mexico / in Albuquerque,” “Massachusetts,” “Western Massachusetts,” “Colorado,” “Tennessee,” and “Front Range.” This list would be much longer if the speaker gave the proper names of various locations, such as “desert” and “swamp,” or if the speaker gave his location, given that “Hurricane Gloria” impacted the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Maine. Still, it is apparent that travel is central to the book, lending it a Whitmanian inclusiveness. In this vein, the poems in the middle of the collection often employ anaphora, another Whitmanian technique, but instead of cataloging the American population (“the pure contralto,” “the carpenter,” “the married and unmarried children,” “the pilot,” “the mate,” etc.), Landman is more introspective: “The far from my people, the weary time wedge, the in all this land, tired and / planning a wrong, the my former self, the my former love, the form of exile, / the mood in which I departed, the mood in which the distance I traveled was / traveled.” Although published almost 160 years apart, the two books, Leaves of Grass and Sign You Were Mistaken, share the same geographic scale and share the same technique; however, Whitman’s I is assertive while Landman’s I is hesitant. When Whitman says, “I am the poet of the body, / And I am the poet of the soul” and “I am large…I contain multitudes,” Landman says, “I was someone else,” “am I Seth,” and “I was still somehow myself.” Despite their symmetry, the two speakers couch their personas in different locations: Whitman’s speaker situates himself in the national, while Landman’s speaker situates himself in the local, or as Landman writes, “This is my home town, / and I am pretty much like it.”
Here is where the arc of Sign You Were Mistaken comes full circle. The seeds of this revelation, that home sustains the speaker, are sown throughout the book, but not until the end do they begin to sprout. Indeed, the journey from idea to idea or from location to location enthralls the reader, so the seeds seem like litter strewn along the wayside. As the reader nears the end of the book, though, he or she understands that the journey was one of self-discovery for the speaker. The destinations are not an escape, but a mirror that reflects his home and family. In the poem “Please Don’t Renovate This House,” for example, the speaker says,
In my hometown,
neighborhoods are randomly dealt
themes for their street names.
The street I grew up on was the name
of a place I ended up visiting a lot.
The arc of the collection is not happenstance. The necessity of travel to comprehend home is nurtured throughout—like the order of the poems was molded to emphasize that correlation. To illustrate, the last poem “For You” begins “Finally,” the only poem to do so, which renders the poem like a conclusion, and it later continues,
Home is oxygen:
necessary, corrosive. When it feels terrible in the interior, maps call the outside
into view. I pour over them for hours, never leaving my kitchen. Finally, I am
unfamiliar with my own house. The routes possible from one spot to another
increase geometrically. It is not enough to know inside that I might travel
Overall, Sign You Were Mistaken employs the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Like oxygen, home is necessary for life, but like pure oxygen, home can be toxic, which sparks the speaker’s travels. Yet, the speaker has no identity without home, so he visits places that remind him of home.
Ezekiel Black is a lecturer of English at the University of North Georgia. Before this appointment, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, GlitterPony, Skein, Invisible Ear, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakwood, Georgia, and edits the audio poetry journal Pismire.