The Volta Picks: Seth Landman’s Sign You Were Mistaken

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“What makes you think / every little thing of you / can be what makes you / everything that lasts forever .” As early as the first poem in Seth Landman’s Sign You Were Mistaken, doubt appears as an elementary and incisive force. If this small poem acts as a kind of fanfare, a primer for the type of immediate and far-reaching concerns of the book, doubt is always among those concerns- but Landman’s doubt is anything but the kind that arrests or dulls the senses. Instead, it acts as a guiding principle, a periscope – never clinging to a single subject, it moves through the work as a mode of inquiry, a force of dislocation, a way of experiencing the many-sided world. Take for example “A Secret Sympathy,” the longest poem of the collection, which explores indecision – spiritual or otherwise – with a surreal logic: “In one dream I felt hedges / burning in the fire of God / all along the perimeter of my house. It was God all along. I poked my head out,” then unfolding over various emotional registers that can be both funny and heartbreakingly precise: “I dreamed you were the only one / I ever loved and the car I drove / expanded until it was impossible / to drive it.” Or “Merry Christmas,” one of a few poems that involve the holidays, in which the speaker navigates hesitant modes of self-assuredness, only to bring them into a sharp focus, lifting them into a kind of unlikely affirmation: “sometimes you get / a chance and it is a chance / to do something else.”

What is most stunning about this work to me is the effect of its syntax: for all their disarmament of language, their strange, enthralling pairings of images and vocal patterns, these poems maintain an intimate quality in their mode of address that makes knowing seem possible, even if always barely out of reach. In “It Was The Busy Seth,” a poem professedly about the self, the “I” is quickly swallowed into a litany of articles and actions, giving the sense of a subjectivity butting against a quickening temporality with momentary and thoughtful restraint: “The I was busy, strange lights, the moon, / the wilder impulse, wakeful, as in being / awake, waking up, the waking, the walking, / the going for a walk, / the this is the thing I have / to do this morning, the thing which, of all / the things, I have to do, the pure as punctuation, the roaming feast…” It is this kind of sensibility, one that is not only attendant to its own internal windfalls, but also looks outward, addresses outward to inform and join a larger conversation, that gives this book its distinct and generous feel. Whether addressing a “you,” “Though you may be / cold, you may be the cold water surrounding my continent,” or an “it,” ’I examined the feel. It seemed / I discarded all of it. For in the / furniture, in the look one may lose / in abstracting above tragedy, I sought / the plain shape of the house,” Landman’s poems suggest that to undergo a process of self-discovery one must always be defamiliarizing first. If to doubt is to continuously recede and restart, then knowing is either impossible or contained in something as close as the sound of “the foghorn…, the breakfast, / the here I am,” and to read this book is to examine the plausibility, the pleasure of these conceits. Never uniform or too fixed, this book was as much an invitation to consider again what little I have charted of myself, as it was a reminder that “When it feels terrible in the interior, maps call the outside / into view.”

–Alexis Almeida

Alexis Almeida lives in Denver. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado, where she is an MFA candidate in poetry.

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