Magic not poetry
Ongoingness not epiphany
Absurdism not nonsense
The 32nd of December not New Year’s
Poetry not magic
Fur Not Light, Jeff Alessandrelli’s second book with Burnside Review Press, has had me wandering its psychogeography for a week. First off, to be clear, Fur Not Light led me to flip Guy Debord’s idea of pyschogeography on its head. Rather than “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals,” in Alessandrelli’s psychogeography, an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior create imaginative geographic space.
Landmarks in Fur Not Light include Daniil Kharms, Democritus, Po-Chu-I, Nirvana, Tchaikovsky, Agnes Martin, Ray Johnson, Kay Sage, Marlon Brando, Sacheen Littlefeather, The Beatles, D.H. Lawrence, 10 quintillion insects, Paul Valery, Wilt Chamberlain, a C- in History of Sports, God, Jean Cocteau, deadbeat landlords, GG Allin, Karl Marx, and assorted others.
Alessandrelli dresses the stage of his poems with these figures, their ideas, their voices, and then navigates that network with a mix of verse and prose that loops and loops and loops through classical literary concerns like death, sex, love, “God’s glovebox,” and learning to never raise “our collective / corporate-funded voice.”
Set up into five sections, three long series book-ended by two short poems, Alessandrelli’s voice and concerns cycle around, connect, and reconnect, weaving a book somehow larger than the sum of its parts. The dividing walls between sections are more like connective tissue or a permeable membrane where the poet can explain how “eternal and forever are just silly / Seven-letter words for absence” and that lust, love and longing will come / And go but uncertainty / Is here forever. / Or—whatever.”
I read Fur Not Light and contemplated Alessandrelli’s particular idea of absence in a cabin with only solar power over the course of a cold snowy day/night, and that snow covered up the solar panel dimming the lights until we had to trudge out and clean the panel off with a broom. Later more snow, more trudging.
Alessandrelli: “the moon made a mirror of you.”
The lights charged and drained, the sun hid in the clouds then blazed a while, Alessandrelli’s book fit into these cycles perfectly, and its voices echoed in my mind as I cooked dinner or as we walked the snowy little three mile loop and watched the light change.
Alessandrelli: “the painter lives his life in revolt of the six primary colors he has been given, he does not desire more, but he does envision another realm of possibility, where light and dark are not opposites that attract, deadended, but instead are pressure points …”
This beautiful cabin space was a pressure point, absent running water, absent a flush toilet, absent a TV, laptop, etc. It was also absent other people as the campground was closed, and we were alone; that is, my wife, my daughter floating upside-down inside her, and me. I read Fur Not Light two or three times, and I thought about the book the whole drive home too. I found that I was filling the already rich psychogeography of Fur Not Light with the voices on the car stereo, specifically Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. More on that in just a bit.
Before we talk about Alessandrelli and Lucinda Williams, we need to talk about Alessandrelli and Ray Johnson. Alessandrelli continues the work of Ray Johnson by sliding the latter’s Nothing of the Month Club straight into a title position for a series of poems. A Nothing, to Johnson, was a performance, or sometimes not. A Nothing to Alessandrelli is at least in part, a magic trick, making something from nothing, or How to Draw a Rabbit out of a hat. In the first poem of the series we are introduced to a character named Jake who explains the seven rules of magic, which include
Exploit pattern recognition
Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing
Keep the trickery out of the frame
To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
If you are given a choice, you believe you acted freely
and then the series proceeds to use these strategies to create a little world out of nothing wherein “Lloyd was reciting his new mantra under his breath,” and “Penelope typed how to fold a burrito so the filling doesn’t fall out into the invisible engine filled with quantifiable numerical codes analytically transformed into linguistically readable searches and how to fold a burrito so the feeling doesn’t fall out appeared on the screen instead.” Readers of Kharms might sense his face peeping through the empty spaces in these letters.
What does any of this have to do with Williams’ album released in the 90s? Nothing. Nothing, in the positive, magnetic, magical sense. One track on the album in particular, “I Lost It,” is composed using the same magic as the Nothing of the Month Club, but with a little more twang. Faced with an aggressive sign campaign from an evangelical church, Williams responded to their message of “I Found It,” with “I Lost It” and creates an entire emotional universe around the fictional lost item, around that absence, until we not only believe something was lost but maybe we also lost it, maybe we’re lost too. Williams gives interviews and describes driving around Houston, seeing the “I Found It” signs and then writing “I Lost It.”
Alessandrelli opens Fur Not Light with the argument that “imagination is a fact, fact with spurious relationship with the truth.” Later, he adds, “The best lies are the ones that eventually turn true.”
This act, this making something from nothing, this making the lie become eventually true, makes Alessandrelli’s book worth working through more than once or twice. You may find yourself coming to the last page of Fur Not Light, and just starting again from the beginning, like I did. The tricks work a little differently each time, and new absurdities are discovered, maybe because Alessandrelli keeps them out of the frame; maybe because they’re placed squarely in the frame but they make us laugh, too; maybe because there is more than one trick happening at a time. I don’t know. Alessandrelli:
I’m writing daffodils again,
Trying to superimpose
Into sound, word.
Somehow someway somewhen …
Fur Not Light, by Jeff Alessandrelli. Portland, Oregon: Burnside Review Press, September 2019. 77 pages. $8.00, paper.
Michael Sikkema is a working class poet who was born and raised in rural Northern Michigan. Author of five full-length collections—including YOU’VE GOT A PRETTY HELLMOUTH (Trembling Pillow Press, 2019), FUTURING (Trembling Pillow Press, 2015), and JANUARY FOUND (BlazeVox Books, 2014)—he has also written or collaborated on over a dozen chapbooks, and edits Shirt Pocket Press.