Contrapuntal, poetry by Christopher Kondrich, reviewed by Erin McKnight


Following in the artistic practice of combining melodies, Christopher Kondrich’s Contrapuntal sounds a textured tone. If music must be written to be best appreciated by others, a narrative crescendo establishes the counterpoint of this sonorous collection.

Because what resounds is a symphony of inventiveness, Kondrich its assured conductor. None of the fifty-nine poems are titled; the four included books are simply numbered. Yet the poems exhibit supreme confidence in composition, urging a wide range of audience interpretation and sanctioning Kondrich’s unrestrained musicality. Such influence directly addresses anticipated dissonance—rendering discord spare yet propulsive—and is detected in every part of the arrangement. The Index of First Lines, for example, compels literary consideration in single lines, the culminating “We have a greater capacity” suggesting inadequacy and promise as juxtapositional points of departure. But it is through the combining of lines that a mind is truly directed to motion: “We didn’t know exactly what we were / At one time.” Dualism, and the movement of two separate melodies with respect to each other, serves the collection as not only its subject but as its subjects’ struggle: the desperate pursuit of connectedness in a work that celebrates discreteness.

And it is the tempo of time itself that is distinct in Book One, the longest of the work’s four movements. The twenty-one included poems appear suspended on individual pages, yet rooted when considered in coupledom. Though not explicitly represented, the title of the collection is also discerned:

the twin melodies
were slightly off,
one was a bit ahead,
or maybe one was
a bit behind, I couldn’t

From this fractured sense of time it is a disorienting echo that results, consternation caused by a pervading aural reflection which circumvents positioning on a linear scale. The solution to this predicament of “barely connect[ing] / to your life”? Paradoxically, time.

We like to believe that with enough of it we will feel prepared for the trivial and consequential moments that slur the dissonant notes of our experience, but it is personal chronology—its pace sped up or slowed down in an effort to gain insight—that offers the only readiness for a more complete integration of self within a greater society. All we can do then with these dual melodies of past and future that sound in the moment like “gibberish” is to assign them meaning through language as we hold our “attention / up against them” for as long as they permit—trusting that two timelines will meet.

If Contrapuntal’s first book was a temporal exploration of consciousness vertical in nature, its second is a horizontal endeavor in awareness that endlessly repeats. Because to replay the day in search of moments of congruence is to relive it, and submitting to “the metronome” in this manner leads only to a relentless monotony.

So we aim for abandonment of this methodical pace of life, acting on the desire to “destroy / [our] discreteness” and “be absorbed into the world.” We sit at the piano. We play music. But to create in this uninspired manner is to project a singular note, and although it may be possible to “hear a longing and lilting memory,” this sound remains unconnected to others: loneliness fills our auditory field and though we hold ourselves responsible for the piano’s lacking range, we are continually disappointed to find “its chest empty” each morning.

Yet we repeat the arrangement, “the keys / receiv[ing our] worry with each touch,” as we sit and strike separate notes that are perceived as the same; although we expect to find ourselves here, unconsciously hope to meet ourselves here, the chair repeatedly proves “a closer / companion than anyone [we] know.” Yet the lines of the largely resigned second book are also gradated with hope, Kondrich directing in a “forward motion” toward an ever-nearing appreciation that even “without touching the piano / we can listen to our elements”—the disparate parts of ourselves that constitute wholeness, but are also “threaded outside into something wonderful.” Discreteness, then, stands a chance of achieving the longed-for counterpoint rhythm.

But the musical notation of Book Three appears conducted by a fatigued wrist, and time “has oxidized to a dull green.” Looping has been surpassed by a displacement that both disorients and dislocates as we now find ourselves “crossing and re-crossing the threshold” of understanding. Invariably “stripped of [our] periphery” and trapped in this disconcerting stasis—the “stagnancy” that is “mistaken … for motion”—we are not actually passing through an entry point into deeper consciousness, but are instead “continuously repositioned” right before it and “stuck in a loop / of taking the first step.”

To progress there must be a first step; even a tentative one will, with adequate time and recurrence, place us within the revelatory “tier of / consciousness directly below consciousness.” The unnamed narrator may ask “how often do you gain knowl- / edge with the same contours and dimensions multiple times,” but the answer lies in a precedent iteration of his own convoluted deliberation: “I am / stripped of my periphery each time I am repositioned and each time / I obtain visual and auditory information.” Although the sameness of our surroundings appears ceaseless, among the “copies laid out” across the piano, across our mind, and across dual sensory fields are poignant anomalies.

Within the stellar fourth book it becomes apparent that time “is actually progressing, the past, / moving forward,” and our work of “piecing together the present… for as long / as [we] can remember” is noble in its earnestness. This conscientiousness in both “form and timing” is supplemented in the final poems with a “rigor of emotional / expression”—playing music not to achieve perfection, but to perform “with emotion.” Our sincerity forms the “tones of the day”: the “same sounds, / the murmuring / that displaced [us] / then” but now settles.

Because we inherently know how to listen to the “beautiful melody” that is “already within us,” and just as our aim for awareness can ring like routine “there are melodies that / recur.” Sometimes they are “in a minor key, sometimes at an increased tempo / and you have to keep up” even if it feels like we only recognize what we’re composed of by trying to string together singular notes. Ultimately, we gain “ground / by losing it” and as the narrator is advised: “you know what they say / about things that don’t return.”

Contrapuntal isn’t easy-listening poetry but perhaps, as Christopher Kondrich writes in one of his sophisticated poems, “a tenuous grasp is / enough.” If our future “is full of music,” we have time yet to tighten our grip, but also to recognize that the search is our sound—the melody that makes an already inspired collection sing.

Contrapuntal, by Christopher Kondrich. Parlor Press, Free Verse Editions. 90 pages. $14.00, paper.

Erin McKnight is the publisher of Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent press publishing collections of literary fiction. Erin’s own writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and W. W. Norton’s The Best Creative Nonfiction. Erin lives in Dallas with her husband and young daughter.

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