Our Fortunes by Julie Kalendek. Burning Deck, $10.
Reviewed by Chad Davidson
In her first full-length collection, Our Fortunes, Julie Kalendek positions three sequences of clipped, untitled poems in a mosaic depicting various “chemical flavored” relationships and their ends. The first sequence, “Retraction,” speaks with obituary-like coldness and impersonality: “My work on your behalf / comprises an addiction.” The second, “Make,” falters a bit with its reliance on the anaphoric opening line, “As we seem to begin”; moreover, the fact that each of the four poems in the sequence has fourteen lines yet offers little interrogation of the sonnet seems a missed opportunity. The final and title sequence, “Our Fortunes,” with its numbered poems stripped of punctuation, employs more architecturally interesting structures, usually by way of surprising rhymes, as in the fourth poem: “I faked a lesson / taught you verbs // we conjugate quite fair // Could I extract the message / if it wasn't really there.”
The power of Kalendek's poems resides mainly in her peculiar yet subtle turns of phrase, in her discovery of the loopholes in the language shared intimately by two people. At her best, Kalendek astounds: “was it better to have a man / look up to you or down your shirt, / look down on you or up your skirt?” Two poems later, she offers this: “What a surprise when the woman declines / and is vicious, but reclined / at the appropriate angle.” Kalendek employs a lyricism that is consistently calculated and--as the press release suggests--“analytical” in its systematic appraisal of lovers whose language “grew too much inward” and was ultimately “supplanted by a vocabulary of custom.” She dangerously employs a host of polysyllabic, Latinate verbiage that, in the hands of a lesser writer, might come across as excessively sterile. That she can invigorate such a seemingly bloodless lexicon is testament to her powers. We might even wish for longer poems from her, poems that could prolong and deepen her unique brand of lyricism.
In a book of such spartan gestures and calm, understated emotion, however, any repetition calls attention to itself, even a syntactical repetition. The preponderance of what we might call the “calculus of stone” construction--one in which two unlike nouns are connected with the genitive “of”--begins to overpower the more innovative moves. Some examples: “civilization of machinery,” “facts of desire,” “geography of your need,” “framework of belief,” and “a parcel of each day.” Indeed, localized repetitions of syntactical structures seem symptomatic of the book's somewhat limited emotional register. The narrator herself appears to acknowledge such a shortcoming in the “Make” sequence's finale: “I can't arouse a single hope / from the impure line.” What's more, poems that attest to the failure of words, or of the poet who writes them, have also become a kind of poetic cliché--after all, isn't the poet's job to find the words? Kalendek does such a thorough job of linguistic foraging throughout the collection that these lapses into the well-charted territory of poetic ease stand out more emphatically. Ultimately, though, Kalendek achieves a mostly vivid portrayal of failing intimacy, which is all the more impressive given her chilly and distant lexicon.