Review of i am like october when i am dead

by Chas Holden


        Roggenbuck’s chapbook, i am like october when i am dead, can be summarized in one phrase: “out-of-touch”…and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There is a wonderful distance and hollowness presented in the work (clearly evinced in the hyper-minimalistic form complete with double-spacing and plenty of white-space) that serves to remind readers (or perhaps just this reader) of a culture that is increasingly “out of touch.” Indeed, for me, the chapbook is, on a literal level, out-of-touch: in a digital format there is no unique kinesthetic feeling, since I interact with it through the same mouse and screen I use for any/all online activity.

        Non-sequitur is the principal poetic device, creating surprising juxtapositions—like drinking gallons of rice milk and ripping out headlights, or Mayan doomsday prophesies and love like Jupiter’s storms, or misogynist funeral hymnals and internet images of animal cruelty. Perhaps the most emotionally evocative non-sequitur involves the transformation of a lost-love poem into a still-life of apathy. The beginning line, “you are gone,” creates an expectation in the reader of a traditional lovelorn sentiment. This expectation is vexed by the next (and final) line, “for lunch i had peanuts,” which coldly suggests that life goes on—a never-ending procession of stark shortcomings. In the world created by the poet, the reader feels as an outsider. The landscape is strange and the figures are strangers.

        To underscore this feeling of strangeness and isolation, the first poem presents an audience out-of-touch with poetry, anticipating the inevitability of misreading (if such a thing can be said to exist). Like Baudelaire, Roggenbuck has the balls to insult his readers by holding up a fun-house mirror, calling them out on their poetic prejudice and artistic apathy. In another poem, the poet outright tells the reader to “get out” once the poem is done, further suggesting that the two are out-of-touch with one another.

        Throughout the chapbook, the audience is given several out-of-touch moments marked by spaced-out narrative voices like the guy throwing his neighbor off a roof with enough time and peace-of-mind to reflect on the impropriety of his actions, stating with restraint “god help me.”Another poem presents a narrator out-of-touch with the land, one who doesn’t realize that the corn harvest is over until his father tells him it’s “way over.” Moreover, several of poems present narrators who are increasingly out-of-touch with other humans. There’s the disembodied voice emanating from a wheelbarrow that states, “if you call me, i won’t answer.” There’s the uncle who tells his nephew (on his birthday, no less) he will choke his dad. The reason? He doesn’t care and he’s not afraid. There’s the individual who climbs a church with a rake to scare people walking by. There’s the voice that expresses surprise at the mere appearance of another: “oh, you have a smock on.” Yet, the most impactful iteration of the “out-of-touch” theme is in the eponymous “i am like october" poem. In this piece, the narrator is out-of-touch with his own hand—the principal “organ” (if you can call it that) for the faculty of touch. Indeed, the hand is estranged from the self because it reminds the narrator that he is “like the killers of people.” Such a hand presents a paradox: it is simultaneously the seat of feeling and the principal tool of feeling-less murder.

        The true power of the chapbook arises when one realizes that this out-of-touch wasteland is surfeited with those seeking a connection, even if those attempts are mostly failures. In this world, negation becomes a kind of connection. The wheelbarrow voice that refuses to answer is connected to the other through its refusal; the misanthrope on the church roof is connected to passers-by because of his efforts at repulsion; the narrator throwing his neighbor off the roof is connected to the neighbor by this act of destruction; the uncle threatening his brother (via his nephew) is connected to the brother through the threat. Even though these connections are far from “direct” they still bind the people. The collection finishes with a poem describing another example of indirect connection—a narrator who tapes over a rented video with footage of himself shouting compliments to his family. Even if the subjects of the compliments never hear them, the artifact created serves as a tacit bond. So, no matter how out-of-touch a culture/individual/world becomes, there is no escaping entanglement, since even repulsion is a kind of attraction.


chapbook website homepage