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“To move out of one’s comfort zone is helpful”: Review of Emily Pettit’s Goat in Snow
Joe Betz, reviewer, begins by situating Pettit’s collection with the traditions of Surrealism:
Surrealist techniques inform Pettit’s writing—especially her desire to make the reader uncomfortable. A main function of surrealist art is to remove oppositions in order to reveal some new insight, and one way to erase opposition is to place the most ridiculous images side by side: think Statue of Liberty eaten by an orangutan. The complex machinery of our rationality attempts to make sense of these juxtapositions, and when we do (or don’t) the experience is enjoyable, new. So, when we read Benjamin Peret’s line, “The blue asparagus of official ceremonies,” it is both nonsense and sense. We read it again, and it makes us smile; we read it again, and we develop some political interpretation; we read it again and want to write something like that, removed from the binds of the rational mind but able to be understood by it.
Emily Pettit joins a line of American writers who take what is best about surrealism (its ability to reveal what André Breton called “the marvelous”) but defy the surrealist label. John Ashbery and James Tate come to mind quickly, but I do not know if Pettit bristles at the term quite like they have. The technique of unusual juxtaposition to create the surrealist ideal—the experience of “the marvelous”—is key in Goat in the Snow. Pettit, though, goes beyond simple juxtapositions (blue asparagus/ official ceremonies). Pettit’s erasure comes through categories.
Pettit does not want to give the reader what they want and expect—and that is a good thing. It is also difficult to achieve without making the reading experience too frustrating. As John Ashbery writes in praise, “[Pettit’s] kindness is always ahead of us,” and Goat in the Snow does lead the unsuspecting reader through the divergent paths of its poetry. However, one reader’s view of Pettit’s style as kindness can be seen by another as pity—which the reluctant endings lead me to believe. Without that kindness, or pity, entering in the first or final lines, several poems would not be as successful, and Pettit knows this well—even if she does not like it. Abandoning the reader to the disorienting effects of erasure through category would produce the same negative reactions surrealist art faced during its fall. The completely confused reader shuts the book; the reader able to hold onto even the weakest piece of meaning, keeps the book open. We keep Goat in the Snow open.
Toward the end of “How To Find Lost Objects,” our speaker tells us, “I don’t mean to chivvy.” Chivvy ironically means, in a book of imperative poems, “to tell someone what to do.” Pettit is not pushy, but this book does challenge “comfortable” poetry. “Things here are uncomfortable / and that’s a good thing,” she writes, and I agree that to move out of one’s comfort zone is helpful; I read the poem again. I encourage all readers to find Goat in the Snow, but do not use a “How To” poem from the collection to do so.
Full review here.