Aaron Belz Writes the Sort of Poetry That We Need

Soft Launch: Poems | Aaron Belz | Persea Books

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Aaron Belz’s stock-in-trade is his shifting of context. He begins with a phrase that means one thing, only to later shift into an additional meaning; the new context is often ridiculous and it’s always unexpected. His last collection, Glitter Bomb, was an explosion of this kind of verbal play as if Belz was trying out for the role of a Shakespearean fool. I loved it. And yet I am delighted to see that he has moved in a new direction with his latest collection, Soft Launch.

He’s still shifting contexts, but now Belz shifts not just idiom but imagery. The result is that the poems in this collection reverberate with more than wit (though pure wit is not absent: see “Outrage:” “I threw up my hands in disgust; / Why had I eaten my hands?”). One sample of this imagery-contingency is “My Poetry Went Downhill When You Left,” which uses the first line as its title and thereby opens as the archetypal break up lyric. But the second line immediately considers what going downhill might mean–isn’t zooming downhill usually fun?

but it went downhill like a fun toboggan
full of kids wearing colorful caps, just
one of them with a bloody nose from the dry,
frozen air--and a few of them Asian.

Belz liberates the idea from the cliche by returning to the image, and the shift of context creates enough surprise that the image is able to linger, even if it is a kind of cliche itself. Two cliches employed with skill make a memory, apparently.

Other images are more poignant, even while amusing. I adore “This Morning” and am convinced it captures perfectly what Belz has achieved in this collection. The poem invokes one of our contemporary fears: gangs. But Belz, ever on the lookout for ways to reveal language’s contingency, places these gangsters on the speaker’s doorstep not with the rhetoric of fear, but with the imagery of door-to-door salesmen:

This morning gangsters visited.
They said “We want you to join our gang.”

These gangsters are trying to demand loyalty, but all they manage is a “visit”–no fearful connotation there–and their words miss the imperative, so they sound more like Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everything, it seems, is chipping away at their tough persona:

They were huddled around my front door
cupping their hands and blowing into them
because it was so cold outside.

And as they stand here, we learn that “In the street a blue minivan was idling.” This idea of gang-bangers would have disappeared completely under the waves of familiar imagery and soft connotations if it were not for the rhythm of the syntax, whose staccato phrases fire upon us like a worthy, fearful scene.

Eventually, unable to convince the speaker to join them, they hand him a business card, saying, “Call us when you make up your mind.” They try to leave with some sense of dignity, some sense that they are still an intimidating troupe:

They trotted back to the van
And got in and slammed the front doors

But this is where the insertion of that blue minivan–that most practical of vehicles, think of all the people it could hold!–becomes the masterstroke.

and slid closed the rear doors till
they clicked which seemed to test
their patience, and as they drove off
I could hear a warning chime as if one
of the rear doors hadn’t shut all the way,

Now these gangsters are caught in the same conundrum I find myself in when I’m in a hurry with my family: I’m trying to drive away, but the minivan’s doors are getting finicky and the alarm is going off when I shift into drive. By the last line of the poem, these gangsters are not like me, they are me, and my sympathetic connection with them is complete:

so the driver pulled over, and there
was some shouting and fiddling with
the doors, and then they were off
again, the warning chime still sounding,
but I guess they were too proud or angry
to stop a second time to try to fix it.

The imagery of this poem is more sustained than most of what Glitter Bomb gave us, but the tools of Belz’s trade are intact. Belz’s context-shifting mixes our fears with the familiar, and the absurdity that rises out of it produces delight.

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It also produces something soft, which I think is a crucial point to consider with Belz’s work. Satire can be hard and even cruel, and as Belz plays on the contingency of our idiom, he is satirizing much of our lives, from the way we use words to the way we treat one another. These comic shifts lend us perspective, a kind of objective view of ourselves.

It’s that objective view that is dangerous, though. Wendell Berry says in Life Is a Miracle that a certain kind of objectivity “functions in art much the same as in science; it obstructs compassion; it obscures the particularity of creatures and places. In both, it is a failure of imagination.”* As a long time reader of Aaron Belz’s work, I have asked myself whether his comic distance obstructs compassion. At times, particularly during Glitter Bomb, which I loved as it incisively cut into my own self-regard, I wondered whether it was charitable.

To put it another way–if I were to become like the voices of Belz’s poetry, if my voice were these voices, would I be a person others would want to have over for dinner? A desired companion? Or would I be the person who is exhaustively prepared to pry apart my companions’ words and foibles and expose them to view from an objective distance? To strike where any strike is possible?

Soft Launch is an answer to that concern, and “This Morning” provides a sample of it. I suppose one could argue that what Belz has done there is, to use Richard Wilbur’s phrase from “Barred Owl,” “domesticate a fear,” that he has tricked me into thinking a fearful thing is harmless–gangsters are just like me! I am more convinced, however, that he has exposed the power of rhetoric to craft my view of the world. With gangsters, the rhetoric of news, politics, and movies has done more than “make our terrors bravely clear” (Wilbur again), it has created another kind of being, one distant from me.

In Soft Launch, Belz uses imagery more prominently and thereby reasserts his own grasp of the particularity of creatures and places. His imagination is in full swing and reveals how life and the people who experience it are wild combinations of silly and serious, of reverent and ridiculous, of profound and playful.

It’s the kind of poetry that is good for us.

Geoffrey Sheehy is an English teacher and writer living in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He has published essays at The Curator, Mockingbird, and The Englewood Review of Books