REVIEW OF JOSHUA HARMON’S SCAPE

Review of Joshua Harmon’s Scape
Black Ocean, 2009. 71 pages. $12.95

By Ezekiel Black

The title of Joshua Harmon’s book is evocative. At first, Scape resembles the combining form -scape, which, according to its linguistic function, only occurs as part of other words, such as electro- and its inability to stand without, say, magnet. Combining forms are essentially incomplete words that create void, an empty space yearning to be filled. Likewise, the title Scape, like an electromagnet, attracts words to itself, and many of the book’s section titles, namely “Landscape,” “Inscape,” and “Escape,” demonstrate this phenomenon. Indeed, dyads, such as magnetic attraction and repulsion above, are a motif in the book. For example, the dyad memory and perception pervades the book:
 
 

        Trepanned: in other words, my mind wanders
        no farther than the map I drew from memory,

        marking the stone-circled embers smoke memory makes smoke
        —wisps to occlude whatever arrow-line I’d draw next.

Here, the once familiar landscape is now a half-forgotten memory, a sketch in the mind obscured by haze. Memory and perception, though, can also align: “The landscape remains obedient to previous notions. It is Massachusetts outside my window and Massachusetts in my mind: it is only the site of some larger omission.” Furthermore, Scape borrows some classic dyads, man versus nature being the most prevalent: “I built a frame around the landscape, to shape it in a way more sympathetic to its own inclinations. Built up hills to crown what one gazing on them might stutter. Built hollows below the hills to catch the wind’s harvest.” Altogether, these dyads construct the book’s tendons, holding muscular poetry to the poem’s skeletal form, be it lyric, prose poem, or concrete poem awash with white space.

The title Scape has a second, scientific definition. Antennae are sensory organs that gather outside stimuli for the brain to process, and the base of an antenna, the segment that joins an antenna to the creature’s head is the scape; therefore metaphorically, Harmon’s book is this joint, linking the physical and the mental, another dyad. Scape bridges the sights and sounds of Harmon’s poetic landscape with the reader’s mind. In a word, this bridge allows readers to trace the book’s contour lines, allows navigation. The first section’s title “Whither,” an archaic word meaning, among other definitions, “to what place,” e.g. Whither are we bound?, establishes this theme of exploration. Here is an excerpt from this inaugural section:

        this is nothing to
        naming this unread surface

        defect of drift lines:
        snow breaks the back

        of the field it
        possesses, which is nine

        points of the law:
        ultimate elements ultimately break

        wending laws

The book, like the speaker who attempts to travel the drift lines, those paths of least resistance, despite the snow, walks terra incognita, and thus, Harmon is a cartographer trying to reconcile the known and unknown land, trying to answer the question “Whither are we bound?” He works between these extremes, or as he writes in one poem, a possible ars poetica,

        I traffic in the elided spaces
        inside my head, the ineluctable
        tangent, the staid dust-bunnies of belief:

        I count on the one thing I can’t count on,
        and oh I admire the anecdotal
        country

When readers survey the map of Harmon’s poetic landscape, a distinctive group of features maintains their attention.

Harmon employs alliteration, archaisms, and neologisms to great effect in Scape. Their combination sets an idiosyncratic scene, one that is both nostalgic and futuristic. For example, the alliteration has readers glance over their shoulders, reminds them of the once poetry, Old English poetry even:

        —heelprint and halter, halfway
        heard: before means back

        then, to know before
        it breaks it lurches

Harmon heightens this effect with archaisms, but these often appear beside neologisms, which have yet to enter the English lexicon, an acknowledgement of the future poetry:

         In the blowth, half-jingled, honeycomb
        of nascent scrip: witted whereall
        night falls bumbling aloud,
        a coppice’s untipped accent
        middles, roofliply, in the smattered nulls.

The density of the language rivals an old growth forest, but like a pristine wilderness, its rarity lends it importance and intrigue. Memory versus perception, mental versus physical, known versus unknown, nostalgic versus futuristic, this is the fruit of Harmon’s dyads. Scape is an appropriate title because no current -scape, from landscape to seascape, from cityscape to moonscape, can capture its poetic vision.

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Ezekiel Black is a lecturer of English at Gainesville State College. Before this appointment, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, GlitterPony, Skein, Invisible Ear, Tomfoolery Review, Tarpaulin Sky, InDigest, Drunken Boat, CutBank, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakwood, Georgia and edits the audio poetry journal Pismire.



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