Beyond Prose Poetry: A Review of Kristi Maxwell’s Realm Sixty-Four

 

By Mike Maggio

 

            Back in the late eighteenth century, Wolfgang von Kemperlen built a device that was billed as the first automatic chess-playing machine, an automaton that could independently play a game of chess against a human opponent. Known as the Turk due to its appearance, the device was pitted against chess players of various skills, including such notables as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte, and, while often losing, continued to intrigue people throughout Europe.

            The Turk, however, as was later revealed, was nothing more than an elaborate hoax, for hidden inside was an experienced chess player who manipulated the pieces through the use of magnets and created the impression that the mechanism was indeed an automaton, capable of playing its challenger without the help of human intervention. Like the man behind the curtain in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, the Turk was revealed to be an illusion behind which stood nothing more than a human being.

            Kristi Maxwell’s Realm Sixty-Four uses the Turk and the game of chess as both its historical backdrop and literary motif. Using language that is at once intriguing and precise, she creates an illusion through which the reader navigates, sometimes blindly, sometimes with the utmost clarity, often with the excitement of discovery, always with a feeling of wonder and fascination, much like what the Turk’s admirers experienced during its day.

            One of the more interesting aspects of this collection is how Maxwell’s writing traverses subtly between prose and poetry, blending both in a way that often erases the distinction between one and the other.  Yet the question remains: is this simply a prose poem or is it an attempt to use the prose poem in new and unique ways?

Much has been said over the years about the attempts to minimize the distinctions that demarcate what constitutes poetry and what constitutes prose, to combine these two genres in ways that create something totally new, a fresh new-fangled genre in which readers experience the pleasures of both. Of course, prose poetry does just this, creating text that is prose-like in form but which makes use of poetic techniques, including such devices as heightened imagery and repetition. Others, meanwhile, have tried to blur the distinction even more. In recent years, writers have juxtaposed poetic text against prose in an effort to keep the distinction but let each genre inform the other. Susan Howe, for example, does this in Singularities, and Tina Darragh, in a(gain)2st the odds, attempts the same sort of collage, both writers blending poetry, prose and image. Maxwell’s writing, however, goes beyond these attempts and takes the prose poem to a whole new level while maintaining a modicum of accessibility that is, at best, difficult for the average reader tackling Darragh and Howe.

Take these lines, for example, on page 12, from the section “the first chess-playing automaton: the Turk”  

                                                (theory)

controlled by strings –as if light-rays anchor the sun—or a road is a leash direct –

tion  yanks —or your lips a  knot sound wriggles  out of —or  the drain is a water

lasso—or  the ground a grass harness—or your line of vision, the  horizon  sucks 

like a straw

The lines are long and the passage resembles a prose paragraph, making use of the hyphenated direct-ion at the end of the first line and the use of right and left justification in the formatting. Yes this hyphenation can easily be seen as enjambment. And while the words flow much like prose, the images evoked and the heightened sense of vision projects a sense of poetry, making this very much prose-poem-like.

Maxwell’s lines are not all long, however. Throughout the book, she also makes use of short lines (as in the very next stanza, also labeled theory: “chest hallowed,\a human concealed–\thought skeleton,\bone-skilled” p.12) with lines of medium length (”it must be a very old king\that one step is the maximum\he can muster. Shadow his only touch form” p.63).Maxwell’s poetics are quite contemporary. Using such devices as dictionary definitions and an index notating the moves in a game of chess, she mixes and matches words and various types of texts in a sort of collage, though one often wonders if this was indeed one of the methods she employed, a good thing, perhaps, as this provides another uncertainty through which to navigate. At times, too, she sculpts the pages, shaping them with words and stanzas, making them appear like the squares on a chessboard. 

So the question remains: is this a prose poem, a combination of prose poetry and non-conventional poetry or is this something totally new? And, a more intriguing question: why make use of this form in this particular piece? For beyond the question of form is the question of content and how form informs content.

Realm Sixty-Four is an historical work. Yet it is written for the modern reader. There is an historical honesty to this work, one which allows the past to be accessed by the present in a way that is most pleasing to the reader. And while the language it employs reflects the historical context, it is not stale or even stilted. And the form that the writing takes provides a contemporary window in which to view the past. Further, the use of the prose poem, and the way Maxwell seemingly .extends it, creates yet another illusion to further illuminate the subject matter she is presenting.

Realm Sixty-Four is a love poem, filled with what are sometimes almost erotic references (“that those lips might later re-lip themselves\on a cheek to which they are held” p.99). It is a chessboard where opponents meet. It is filled with oppositions: illusion vs. reality, human vs. machine, chess opponents, one seemingly automaton, the other human, facing each other against a backdrop of history. And then there is the literary illusion: this question of prose vs. poetry, of prose poetry combined with non-prose poetry. Realm Sixty-Four expands this concept in ways that move the art of poetry forward.

 _     _     _

Mike Maggio has published fiction, poetry, travel and reviews in Potomac Review, Pleiades, Apalachee Quarterly, The L.A. Weekly, The Washington CityPaper, VOL. NO MAGAZINE, Gypsy, Pig Iron, DC Poets Against the War, of which he is an active member, and many others. He is the author of Your Secret is Safe With Me (Black Bear Publications, 1988), an audio collection of poetry; Oranges From Palestine (Mardi Gras Press, 1996), a chapbook of poetry; and Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris, 2001), a collection of short fiction. His newest collection of poetry, deMOCKcracy, was published in June, 2007 by Plain View Press. He has a Master’s of Fine Arts from George Mason University

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