Poetry News

Alan Felsenthal's Brueghelian Lowly

By Harriet Staff
Alan Felsenthal, Lowly, cover

At Boston Review, Rob Crawford reviews Alan Felsenthal's Lowly, which came out from Ugly Duckling Presse earlier this year. The book "bypasses many of contemporary poetry’s usual movements, feints, and sources—or else, it partly transmutes them—in its achievement of something more like the early modern surrealism of Bruegel or Bosch," writes Crawford. More:

An achievement of special note is how deftly several of these poems integrate themes of Jewish history and identity, a quietly confident treatment that brings out subtle textures, as in “If You Need a Ride”:

                                                  Lot’s wife,
tired of Lot, lost her shoulder as she glanced over it

backward into sky-clad sulfur, from which she heard
the sound tomorrow cannot make.

On a more personal level, the grandparents mentioned in several poems come from an Old World steeped in pain and redolent with death; in a twist on Heraclitus’s ever-changing river, we are told, “The problem with Rhine / is no river here stays / worthy of drowning.” That the Holocaust is not invoked by name makes its shadow over modernity loom all the more. It is also fitting, given Felsenthal’s fascination with history in both its mystic and ordinary proportions, that we meet a figuration for the unspeakable elsewhere, with a reference to the oven at Neisse, a seventeenth-century mass-execution furnace in which “the poorest women / burned inside,” a precursor to subsequent horrors.

When Felsenthal punctuates his archaic materials with glimpses of the present day, each side of this counterpointing can be read in conversation with other recent works. The commitment to an antiquated world brings to mind Honest James(2015) by Christian Schlegel, a book that Felsenthal himself published with Ben Estes through the small press they run together, The Song Cave. Fittingly the cover of Honest James depicts a Bruegel print, and a surrealist-tinged one, of a beekeeper wearing a round, thatched mask that makes his face look like a tree stump. . . 

Read on at Boston Review.


Originally Published: October 23rd, 2017