VIRGINIA KONCHAN Reviews
The Boatloads by Dan Albergotti
(BOA Editions, 2008)
Primal Fucking and Deathbed Prayers: a Poet for the New Millennium
“What I know is what is sacred,” the speaker of “Vestibule” declares. This opening poem equips the reader for the impassioned world of The Boatloads, which contains some of the most twisted homages seen in some time. Textual revisioning is Dan Albergotti’s forte; his poetic license, while contemporizing the legacies of Abraham, Keats and the good Lord himself, is audacious. His poem “Book of the Father” drips with scorn: “ Yeah primal fucking. . . Yeah Abraham . . . Yeah paranoid/ schizophrenia . . . Yeah convenant and submission . . . In the tank with Ariel Sharon, in the studio with Jerry Faldwell, in the cockpit with Mohammed Atta . . . Yeah Sodom. Yeah Babel . . . Yeah Abraham and your literal origins. The father is high. Yeah the father is high. Yeah Abraham, just like a father, just like a father with a knife . . . ”
His two poems that reference Keats (“Revision” and “The Eve of Ever After”) anchor the collection; both reimagine ends to Keats’ actual death, alone, in Italy—in “Revision” he and Fanny retire to a Greek island to “perfect the art of the human body”; in the “The Eve of Ever After,” Fanny and Keats bear the slings and arrows of aging, bearing children, and losing libido (a distinctly unromantic end). “Those were the good times. Before a pale blue sigh/ replaced the purple riot in his heart. Before she/ lost her figure giving birth to little poets.”
With an irreverence bordering on blasphemy (“We want to find a higher intent/ a god to damn”), and a connectedness to the natural world rivaling none, Albergotti’s debut is a charged pastiche of imaginative genius, fiercely broken chips of song, and a strange peacefulness borne of surviving a treacherous journey only to find oneself washed up on foreign, or, with any luck, domestic shores.
His poem that speaks most directly to the problem of faith (few have it, and even fewer believe in the need for it), is “Affirmation of Faith,” a poem which, like his two elegiac poems “Notes for a Poem in which God does not Appear” and “Poem in which God does not appear” tackles the oblivion of faithlessness (and of death) from a radical perspective: empathy. “I believe there is nothing to be done/ for the squirrel that’s been dying/ all morning on my gravel driveway,” the poem begins. When this animal death intersects with the death of a sparrow that hits the glass-paneled window of the living room: “I believe I stood and walked to the window/ and watched the sparrow close her eyes/ evenly over four minutes while her small head/ became more and more perfectly framed/ by an expanding halo of clear fluid.” When the speaker’s father dismisses the speaker’s vigil over these twin deaths from the animal kingdom as inconsequential, the speaker simply states: “I do not believe my father can feel the movement.”
These two poems, among others, testify to the severance between modern man and his dying gods, and introduce a profoundly disquieting thought: our participation in the divine may at times be an act of interference in the inevitability of death.
Here, the problem of language (formulated by E.M. Forrester as “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) is inextricable from the problem of how, and in what, to believe. “We say Ilium and auto-da-fé,/ napalm and Nagasaki. Our words are like tongues/ of flame atop toy soldiers, consuming us as soon/ as we utter them,” says the speaker of “Lesson of the Elements: Fire.” Echoing Rilke, who equated beauty with terror, The Boatloads equates terror with the imagined indifference of god and the natural world—and the implications thereof, of being forgotten. Yet this most intimate of intimate relationships—that of a projected godhead and the soul—is one with which Albergotti refuses to exchange for a variety of temporal banalities, despite the fact that the god mourned for in The Boatloads is conspicuously absent.
In The Boatloads, the reader confronts the notion that the book of life is generated by an absent god wresting forth beautiful songs from his pining creation—as if god, tired of wooing the soul, has decided to let creation woo god—however heartbreaking, this idea of a lyrical sacrifice demanded by god surfaces, with force. “There is no answer./ There is/ no other song. The only song/ is this song./ Our lords make us sing it./ And then they write it down./ See how the lords are writing us. / They are wise and mad.”
Virginia Konchan's poetry and critical writings have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as The New Republic, The Believer, Notre Dame Review, Rain Taxi, and American Poetry Journal. She is also a contributing reviewer for ForeWord Magazine.