December 8, 2007

Review: The Myth of the Simple Machines

The Myth of the Simple Machines

No Tell Books, $15 paperback

Truth is made, not discovered.

-- Wayne Gabardi

Their voices are bringing the trees to their knees
-- Will Oldham

In Laurel Snyder’s playfully perplexing new collection, truth has its way with myth (or is it the other way round?). The “simple machines” of the title are multitudinous: landscapes, games of chess, conversations, grocery store charades, bodies, movements, dreams, thoughts, language, and seemingly everything in-between. The myth is the assumption that the machines are, in fact, simple. Like Snyder’s poems themselves, the machines are part truth and part myth (or perhaps they are always truth and always myth), and Snyder dutifully crafts her narrative across the book’s four sections.

The first section of the book, “The Machines,” is primarily centered around a mysterious, unnamed girl. In the opening poem, “The Field Has a Girl,” we, like the girl, “become” in Snyder’s world:

The sky has a blackbird.
The field has a girl.

The sky is to the field as

the field is to the sky, only

backwards. White is

to the blackbird as fear

is to the girl, despite

she’s small and alone.


“I live

in this,” says the girl.

“Alone,” says the girl.

Things become quieter.

Things become.

“No matter what you

may do with your life,”

says the girl.
It’s not a stretch to draw a comparison between this poem and that most-popular of blackbird poems by Wallace Stevens, but Snyder also shares some of Stevens’ other poetic sensibilities. Her line breaks, her ample use of “to be” verbs, and her command of a simple yet powerful landscape are all Stevens-esque. This isn’t to say that all eleven poems in “The Machines” are Stevens-esque (they’re more akin to off-kilter fairy-tales, more in line with Kristy Bowen’s work in Feign), but there are teacups and clover and, yes, a jar.

The book’s second section, “Their Casings,” shakes things up a bit. The girl from the first section is gone, and we are introduced to a first-person speaker. Is this the same girl, now speaking directly to the reader? It’s unclear. But one thing is certain: like the girl in “The Machines,” this I is vulnerable and endearing. In fact, that’s exactly what she wants us to say:

When my tea gets cold I like to cry,
and there’s a run in my stockings

that won’t ever end. It gets me.

But isn’t it endearing?

Tell me I’m endearing.


At the grocery store, I’m

“That quiet girl in the blue coat.”

I shop alone.

I like myself against the Bartlett pears

and the smell of pears.

Do I look sad

I think I’m very pretty, sad and alone

in the grocery store.

(“Posture Matters”)
Somewhere in this section, though, a question does arise: who is this speaker addressing? She constantly addresses a “you,” and as readers, it seems like we keep coming to the conversations a little too late:
Like it or not, this is for you,
so pay attention.


Maybe you’ve never been wrong,

but then I can’t believe a word you say.

The things that don’t work

are the important things to have wanted.

You should have all this

figured out by now.



But instead I have you. You staring

at that corn field, saying nothing. You sighing

at that huge green sea, with all its tides

like rulers. You tell me they run straight

until a wall happens. To them. Or something.

What’s that supposed to mean?

(“Beast in the Cornfield”)
In the book’s third section, “In Technology,” everything becomes more frenetic. Points of view shift, God makes an appearance, language speeds up and slows down, and the section ends with a trio of triptychs: “Triptych of Useful Rules (Pictures),” “Triptych of Useful Rules (Words),” and “Triptych of Useful Rules (Conclusions).” If image and language are the central concerns of “In Technology,” perhaps their best representatives are the final three poems. Snyder’s triptych of triptychs is one of the highlights in The Myth of the Simple Machines. They’re whip-smart, light-heartedly haunting, and exquisitely voiced:
Sometimes we catch the kettle.

(“Triptych of Useful Rules (Pictures)”)



1.) You’ll know it when you see it. 2.) Anything that lasts longer

than it needs to, look, hand on shoulder. 3.) I mean to

say, it lingers. I mean both things.

(“Triptych of Useful Rules (Words)”)
The book’s final section, “At Rest,” begins with the poem “Half-sleep Segue,” before closing with a cycle of five prose poems. “Half-sleep Segue” sets-up the dream-like prose poem cycle:
On a Tuesday night, the girl dozes and dreams
of a fireplace. She’s a whisper, a murmur in a slip,

dancing in a slip made of diamonds beside a fire.

The walls are close. The air is warm

red wine and there is candlelight, from somewhere

golden behind her. Deeply golden.

She’s hushed in her heavy slip, dancing slowly

on a thick carpet, alone. When she bruises, she feels

like money, like extra money. She’s a full pocket.
The five prose poems, all titled “Night,” are mythical dreamscapes full of sensory bombardment. And in the final poem, “Night 5 (The Bake Sale),” we finally get a named character: Lucy. It’s such a shock to read Lucy’s name that her existence is itself a revelation. But it’s a short-lived revelation, for Lucy quickly exits the poem. There are more revelations, though, once the speaker finds him at the Bake Sale and the little message written inside the smallest circles of the smallest cake.

The Myth of the Simple Machines
is from that wonderful world where poetry intersects with storytelling. And as Laurel Snyder shows, it’s a world of endless possibility, myth, truth, and reward.

by Nate Slawson