Guests of Space by Anselm Hollo
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2007)
Any book by Anselm Hollo is exciting, mostly due to Hollo’s satirical humor, political commentary, formal playfulness, conversational voice—to my mind, his voice is one of the most distinct in contemporary poetry—and wide range of themes. Guests of Space is no exception. In it, Hollo brings up themes ranging from human contingency to the current U.S. political stupidity; plus, the book is based around the sonnet form, though since this is Hollo, the form is reconfigured, or perhaps I should say that it has been brought back to an earlier tradition where the sonnet could mean just a short poem. The sonnet’s main component that Hollo retains is the fourteen line limit—regular rhyme and meter have been discarded for a more organic form. For readers of his past work, this should be no surprise, for Hollo likes to draw attention to less traditional forms of poetry, getting away from, as Charles Bernstein has called it, “official verse culture;” to quote, Hollo pushes the reader “to defy / The dumbly trembling unities” (9) of official logic, of official verse.
In his poem dedicated to the late Hannes Hollo, Hollo tells us that the title, Guests of Space, comes from Alcuin’s response to Pippin, Charlemagne’s son:
“What is man?” asked the King.
Alcuin’s reply: “A guest of space.” And time yes time
The past lies before us, the future comes up from behind. (6)
The contingency of humans stressed in this section is apparent, and this theme is one that becomes a major one in the book, from poems on dead family members to late poets, yet Hollo adds a subtle twist on this classic poetic theme by the “and time.” By using this mention of time, he brings in the added layer of humans not only being contingent, but being culturally contingent. We are present, “presente,” in cultural space; Hollo brings that to life in this book by using a wide range of references, by stressing what he’s learned from past poets, and even by poems questioning whether his work or any of our works will matter to the future. The conversational tone of his poems helps stress this meaning, for in these poems the narrator sounds just like a person thinking, an educated person, but still a person thinking about anything, trying to be present to contemporary life as it comes at him. The lyric, one might think, but Hollo’s version of the lyric is open—anything can come up in a poem, even thoughts about writing a poem during the process of writing it:
I’ll write a poem about nothing
not about myself
or youth or love or any person
I’ll write it riding along
half asleep in the sun
and then I’ll send it to a friend
signed, William of Aquitane. (13)
The conversational tone suggest the expansiveness of poetry, that it is a “guest in space” itself but also that it includes many topics, or as Hollo puts it:
Poetry can be so many more things
Than what people mostly believe it is. (19)
Related to the contingency theme, Hollo presents his political views. Especially near the end of the book, he aims at contemporary Americans, stating we are the “overfeed co-inhabitants” (77) of a country whose citizens let ourselves “be ruled by a gang / Of vicious thieves” (77). He says of the president:
cavorting on the deck of expensive killing vessel
paid for by you and me
president no bonus
young humans dying
in a country occupied
to the tune of millions of dollars a day
paid for by you and me. (81)
The simple act of voicing the political in poetry seems necessary. One can quibble about the efficacy of politics in poetry, but for one, I’d still like to see more poets actively following Hollo’s example.
Besides being interesting for its contemporary take on the sonnet, Guests of Space is a fascinating read due to the wisdom, fun, and sadness contained in its brief forms. Lisa Jarnot calls it an “elegy to the West,” a summation that seems appropriate, but in many ways the book is an elegy to being contemporary, an elegy to friends, and perhaps an elegy to the individual poet. Having read most of Hollo’s books, I find this one to be among my favorites, and coupled with Notes on the Attractions & Possibilities of Existence: New and Selected Poems 1965-2000, it would make a good introduction to one of the best living poets.
William Allegrezza edits the e-zine Moria and the press Cracked Slab Books. He has published four books, In the Weaver's Valley, Ladders in July, Fragile Replacements, and Covering Over; one anthology, The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century; seven chapbooks, including Sonoluminescence (co-written with Simone Muench) and Filament Sense (forthcoming with Ypolita Press); and many poetry reviews, articles, and poems. He curates series A, a reading series in Chicago dedicated to experimental writing. In addition, he occasionally post his thoughts at http://allegrezza.blogspot.com.