First books are notorious for striking a single note. Having labored to mark out their own distinctive territory, too many writers produce first books that feel very small—the same trick endlessly repeated. What a pleasure, then, to read The Siege of the Body and a Brief Respite by Anthony Caleshu, an American-born poet now living in Great Britain. This far-ranging collection is anything but repetitious.
Title aside, Siege is less concerned with the life of the body than of the mind. Sex and the siren-call of pleasure are explored in a subset of poems (including the deft “Pornography: Director’s Cut” which alternates in tone between clinical and ecstatic), but the real energy lies in Caleshu’s riffs. When Caleshu takes a snippet of source material and lets the mind fly, his results are always arresting, occasionally spectacular. Reading her husband’s work, Vivien Eliot recognizes her own complaints and “She is reading her words/ Spit back in her face. Not even half-way/ Finished, and her nerves, with each broken line/ Are a live, stripped wire, shocking herself.” This is by far the book’s simplest poem—one of the few straight narratives—yet even here the diction is precise. In “At Thy Rebuke They Fled,” playing off of a Psalm, Caleshu starts out giddy and steadily accelerates until the poem feels airborne:
We fled for and from. We fled to and fro.
We fled like the water into the oceans
and like the oceans into the elbow’s bend of the land.
We fled upstream back into the womb
only to flow downstream back into ourselves.
We fled like apples up a garden tree…
Atop the tree we saw shocks of corn flee fields of fire.
Again and again while reading Siege I found myself caught up in just this kind of energized rush, where each movement forward feels both inevitable and unexpected.
Interestingly, the most successful poems are the most elliptical. Comprised of “Dialogues,” the book’s second section reads less like conversations than the self addressing the self. One imagines the speaker shaving in front of the mirror or pacing along a beach, nattering under his breath, trying to work it all out. “Portrait” begins “There is something about a person being naked in front of me that invokes consideration.” Then the response: “One sees one bit and another.” In each of the dialogues, the responses ratchet up their absurdity until we close on a line that, read in isolation, would carry no meaning whatsoever: “It is your horse I see as having nothing on.” What makes this work is Caleshu’s gossamer-fine web of irrationality that seems, somehow, to connect. It’s a neat trick to write around the edges of nonsense without quite falling in.
Not every poem works equally well, of course. There are places where the whimsy feels forced, an exercise in non-meaning. Lines such as “Wear this mask from anthrax/ Watch your noodles your kit and caboodles/ The terrorists have taken Everest!” yield no more on a fifth reading than the first, a sure sign they could have been cut. Overall, though, it’s a minor quibble in work so willing to take chances. Subtle, eccentric, and operating at high velocity, this is a fine first book.
Ellen Wehle, AGNI‘s associate poetry editor, has poems upcoming in FIELD, The Iowa Review, Natural Bridge, US Catholic, Appalachia, Christianity and Literature, Red Wheelbarrow, and National Forum. She has won the Willow Review Prize, an AWP Intros Award, and the John Gilgun Prize. She lives in Winthrop, Massachusetts, with her husband and two step-children. (6/04)
Ellen Wehle’s poetry and reviews have appeared in journals including FIELD, Poetry, AGNI, New England Review, Slate, and The Comstock Review. Her debut collection of poetry is The Ocean Liner’s Wake (Shearsman Books, 2009). (updated 7/2010)