By Michael T. Young
The poems in Carl Rosenstock’s collection The Mystery of Systems are reflective and move with a subtle lyricism, sometimes enchanting, as in the opening of “The Passport”:
In shadows, it seems I see things not quite seen —
The night breaking into scraps around
A sentry’s hands that hide a match flame
As I lean forward to accept the light.
The internal rhymes and slant rhymes of these lines accentuate the beauty of a poetry that probes and pushes toward difficult perceptions. While it tries to “see things not quite seen,” at times, this poetry also brings us to attention with a pointed insight, as when Rosenstock says, “There is no cure for that/Which is accomplished” (36).
The central metaphor of the collection is that of photography of which a prose passage in the collection declares,
Yet, almost from its inception, the photograph could be, has been, manipulated, to reproduce a most realistic image of something that, in fact, did not exist outside itself.
This idea of the photograph as a deception tells us much about the love poems that bookend the collection, as well as the title itself. All the artifice that goes into a photograph, a piece of music, a poem, and all the rules governing a system, lie outside those systems, are ulterior to the things those rules and artifices produce, like the frame around a painting. The proem to the collection, “For the Audience” ends:
To my feet as the music
Must surely be servant
To the dancer. Your dance
Grace and symmetry: this is love.
I applaud you. I love you.
Love, not trust:
Trust is madness.
The speaker here, though not yet known, is Paganini, who is the speaker of the final poem in the Afterword. In this opening poem, the split between love and trust, which one might call madness itself, is remade in the fractures of memory and manipulated perception inherent in the collection’s scrutiny. As “I Depend On You . . .” puts it,
Not the accretion
Of detail, but the selection —
Order and moment discerned
Among casual things.
The “grace and symmetry” in the dance is choreography, another manipulation of art. The quandary is in the subtle equation of love and artifice. If our deepest affection is expressed in artistic form, which is artifice or manipulation, then love cannot be trusted. It recalls Orwell’s comment that “All art is propaganda.”
But Orwell also said, “not all propaganda is art.” However, if we are to learn from art, we must keep in mind that it’s manipulating us to perceive things a certain way; we must step back to find out where it’s taking us and what it teaches. In other words, don’t assume it’s benevolence or innocuousness. Unfortunately, we tend to believe what we see and so are susceptible to deception, the same way the one in love is. Hence the madness of trust and how, within the collection, certain things remain hidden, figures slip into legend, deaths are recounted as justified in self-defense, and words themselves sometimes become walls. The third section of the book is a masterful creation of 2 imaginary Russian poets, presented with translations of their poems and a history explained in the context of a photograph from the archive of a third poet who slipped out of view just as the photo was snapped, “the blur of his right leg in the lower right hand corner.” Wonderfully, this is the very poet whose style of poetry, “Maximalism,” is the largest influence on the 2 poets “translated.” He is that outside influence, the mystery of systems, the unseen or unacknowledged pressure framing the image.
We’re told, “the light writes surfaces; the rest, the depths, remains dark.” However, a song or music seems to persist in the ears of many in the collection. Reality cannot be wholly suppressed by artifice or lost in falsehood and it surfaces as a kind of unidentifiable tune. So, in the middle section of “Confessions of a Christ Killer,” the speaker says,
Even now I hear
This song . . . I can’t
Remember the name.
And in the poem “Anonymity” by the fictional poet Lazarev, we read
In my head, I hear a tune
I heard once — a trick of memory.
I’ve forgotten whence this
Air has come, and search
For a few words to remind me
Where I heard it.
It’s the echo too from Paganini, from the first and last poems. Playing off the love of Paganini for the singer Antonia Bianchi, the concluding poem in the Afterword confesses what is the final sacrifice.
. . . once I made the wood sing, dark
Singing like a hummingbird’s wings, and for that
The tithe I’ll pay to Hell I fear is myself.
The love is the art, the form. What’s sacrificed to it, as often is the case with love, is the self. The art, the love, remains. What we have in these poems, in this collection, is a marvelously written poetry that looks deeply into the nature of art itself. It is a long elegy, perhaps we might say a lament to the inevitable sacrifice the artist makes but also the inherent problems of perception everyone confronts in just trying, as Matthew Arnold put it, to “be true/To one another!” Perhaps what the poem “8 X 10” says of shadows can be said of trust,
It is true, I suppose,
That, as you move closer
To your shadow, the ratio
Approaches one to one.
Poetry helps us move closer to that one to one ratio, and particularly poetry like this. Closing The Mystery of Systems, one senses that by looking long and closely at the artifice in art and everyday relationships, by moving with it in poems both beautiful and thoughtful, one might be able to be a little more honest. The collection is one of the many arguments for how poetry can make the world a little better.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Systems-Carl-Rosenstock/dp/1625492197
Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. HIs other collections include The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Award. Young also received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Shrew, The Smart Set, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Young lives with his wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.