REVIEW: That Our Eyes Be Rigged by Kristi Maxwell


by Matthew Schmidt

Possibilities. It bemuses me to consider the many and varied. It seems there are umpteen doors to open immediately upon entrance into Kristi Maxwell’s fourth poetry collection, That Our Eyes Be Rigged. As readers we’ll all begin in/at the same place; so let us consider the first stanza from “In Which We Ask, Exist”:

Light chews on the patio
or could
a jawbone of light invents a countenance
to settle its valley, to climb scalp-ward
a jawbone of light exposes the whole
pitiable face
juts out over some poor domain
some poor dark domain
I’ve taken a bar into my thought
borrowed thoughts
barred my better thoughts
thought better of
doing that one thing

I’m rather disoriented, unsure where I am or where the poem is (and/or taking place). Usually I would consider this an issue, but don’t feel an overwhelming need to know specifics or see images here. Mainly—because there are multiple parts of the poem to latch onto—it provides enough interest for reader participation. We’re given a super-fantastic line concerning light gnawing concrete. Then, a semi-retraction, though not really. Following, a subtle shift to a half-question, “or could / a jawbone of light” (chew on the patio), half-creation “a jawbone of light invents a countenance.” So, now the jawbone of light is able to create a space for itself in a place (and it may or may not have masticated man-made materials to do so). We’re still contemplating light on a patio at the end of the first stanza, though it seems that the light (which the speaker is contemplating) climbs the speaker’s face. In essence, there is the face of light and the speaker’s face, like dueling Pac-Man creatures, jawing at one another. Of course, this is only my reading, and as I’ve stated there appear to be other avenues of access.

The first stanza is provided as proof to support the following statement: in this collection Maxwell articulates several meanings, imaginings, alternate takes, and restructuring through diction replacement and an admixture of syntactical arrangements. Simply look at the light in the opening stanza: does the light eventually and naturally morph into the speaker’s thought so that it is both physical and mental? Whether I’m the only reader to ‘see’ this in the poem matters less than the fact that there is an evident attempt to carefully place or replace words to mean differently or slightly different. A variation of “thought” appears in four consecutive lines while meaning something different than previously or more precisely re-stated to capture the speaker’s observations/thoughts.

While the above is more of a critical/theoretical approach to Maxwell’s poetry, I feel it’s important to confront the reality of the work to become excited about the work. Sure, I may have read too deeply into the first stanza, yet a simple formula allows an exchange of ideas and definitions through the speaker to the reader. As if watching a person meditate on how to connect with a fellow human through communication, a reader may assess the thought process of the speaker, literally map the synapses firing in their brain.

Throughout the book multiple forms are implemented into the experiment of word/meaning transformation. Maxwell uses long lines, center blocks, mid-line slashes, extra white space, sometimes confusing capitalization and punctuation rules, extended-page poems, and sound.

A prime example from “Post”:

What isn’t ensued by viewing and proven
after. Water muscled by waves
caught in the tide muzzle. This intended restraint

our tending is the refrain for. Swoosh
that drug-busts muteness again.

Speak it aloud. Do you hear the careful assonance and consonance? Sometimes there are direct rhymes, but more often there is a combination of slant rhyme/pun/homonym/repeated word (section) that develops as a poem moves along. “Intended” becomes “tending,” “muscle” bites into “muzzle,” and the “refrain” is “restraint.” That is, it isn’t just sounds/words that move the poems, but that at times these are the major transportive vessels.

A portion of “Plaisir/Minus (+/-)”:

                                                Not a
discarded roll toilet paper scrolled to
empty. Though this was empty. Little
concussions of the heart that resulted in— not
loss, not the golden floss memory shows off

Taken from a center-blocked portion of the poem, this section showcases the syntactical acrobatics employed. “Roll” is shifted from it’s usual position behind “paper” to before “toilet” in order that the rhyme is not too close to “scrolled.” Short of grammatically breaking-down the sentences, let’s content ourselves with recognizing the rhyme of “loss” and “off.” Or even the fact that before a rhyming word loses a letter another rhyming word (“floss”) gains a letter while keeping the -loss. When we arrive at “off” the l has dispersed and the esses have risen to the attention of f’s. A veritable magic act to add/subtract letters and keep the rhyme.

It seems to me the focus of the book is centered around how human eyes see and interpret data. We’re trained to stereotype in order to deal with the onslaught of information that is daily life. However, it is necessary to pay close attention to even the smallest things that we may understand and through understanding join/harmonize/get along with. Maxwell challenges us to view the world from more than one angle, as having more than one possible outcome/meaning. Instead, she champions the idiosyncratic lay-person. We all have our quirks and ways of doing and seeing and being. In “To Exercise This Astonishment,” Maxwell says

I have photographed my birthmark from five angles to submit, and I watch to
see my submission scrutinized with care.

Or later, one of my favorite metamorphoses occurs in one of five poems entitled “Every Time I Want To Write You, I’m Going To Write A Line Instead:,” where words turn to fighting before worth is found (I’d cite it, but I’d want to cite almost the entire poem). Thus, if you’re looking for a book of poems with an edge to its ideology, this should be on your radar.

Buy it from Saturnalia Books: $15

Matthew Schmidt studies English at The Center for Writers, The University of Southern Mississippi.

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