A Tremulous Debut

As Reviewed By: Brian Henry

Tremolo by Spencer Short. HarperCollins Perennial, 2001. $13 (paper).

Selected by Billy Collins as a winner in the National Poetry Series competition.

Spencer Short’s debut collection Tremolo announces a poetic voice that is remarkable for its intelligence, verbal dexterity, and emotional honesty. Tremolo has the youthful exuberance one might expect in a first book of poetry, yet avoids both the sentimentality and the frigidity that can alienate readers. The book’s title, which means “the rapid reiteration of tones without any apparent cessation” as well as a “vibrato in singing, often excessive or poorly controlled,” perfectly captures Short’s poetic style: his poems carry a musical intensity that always seems on the verge of excess. But the presence of the word “tremulous” behind “tremolo” also calls forth the trembling core of many of these poems. It is this combination of vibrancy and vulnerability that distinguishes the book. The end of “Good Peter Henry” aptly conveys the warring elements of Short’s style:[private]

Meaning flies from me like a hat in a headwind.
I am slow of words, slow of foot. I am
both circus & sarcophagus,
the unacknowledged legislation of the world.
Look closely: at how the trees divide & thin into a winter sky.
At how the sidewalks labor under ice. In this,
& in this only, do they resemble our ambition.
O we were wretched. But only wretchedness endures.

This ever-wavering, hyper-aware poet does not settle long enough to arrive at conclusions, so it is the journey itself that matters. This journey–through love affairs, rocky friendships, drinking bouts, and menial jobs–highlights the act of poetry as process. Short’s poems borrow from and allude to philosophers, poets, and musicians such as John Keats, Nietzsche, and the Breeders. This emphasis on process and mixing of high art and popular culture illuminate Short’s indebtedness to the New York School of poetry–especially Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch–yet the author of Tremolo is no imitator. His wizardry is genuine. “I Am Cinematographer” offers readers a glimpse behind the curtain, where this poet-wizard is god-like yet terrified, and demonstrates why Short is a poet to watch:

Clouds rally like cattle along the horizon.
From my window I can see the entire apparatus: the wheels,
the levers & wires. The pulleys.
Angels sleep in the luminous bedclothes of those
of us who believe in angels. Skinny, hairless, I resemble the fallen
child stars of each of my different youths.
Like Schoenberg’s unplayable String Trio
my heart is reinventing the aesthetic.

My heart is as large as a small mid-western city.
The city is soaking in a glass of water.
It springs open before me like a lock on a box.
It is the lock & it is the box.
It is full of narrow cobblestone streets.
I am a cinematographer. The pulleys. The wires.
From my window I can see the entire apparatus.
One of my legs is not like the other.
It throws everything off.


About Brian Henry

Brian Henry has published poetry and criticism in numerous magazines around the world, including the Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, Harvard Review, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Stand, Overland, and Threepenny Review. His first book of poetry, Astronaut appeared recently in the UK and in Slovenia in translation. Astronaut was published in the US by Carnegie Mellon University Press. His second book, Graft, is forthcoming from New Issue Press and from Arc in England. He has edited the international magazine Verse since 1995, and was a Fulbright scholar in Australia in 1997-98, where he was Poetry Editor of Meanjin. He teaches at the University of Georgia.
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