Sunday, February 20, 2022

Benjamin Niespodziany’s The Northerners (2021) is reviewed (alongside an interview with the author) by Evan Williams at The Chicago Maroon

Thanks to Evan Williams for providing the first review of Benjamin Niespodziany’s The Northerners (2021), alongside an interview with the author, over at The Chicago Maroon. The review is posted below, but see here for the whole piece, including the interview.

Ben Niespodziany’s The Northerners (above/ground press, 2021) is a collection of 37 short, numbered poems written while watching Alex van Warmerdam’s 1992 film De Noorderlingen on mute.

The Northerners is episodic, like watching a movie in a theater cast in violent strobe-lighting. The divisions between each poem are extreme, and yet, there are always two on a page and, save for the 37th poem, there’s always a degree of visual continuity. Threading the episodic bursts into, if not a narrative, then at least a form of textually-depicted progression, is The Northerners’s cast of characters. Most present are the saint, the boy, the forester, and the butcher. Appearing briefly are the two monks, the neighborhood, the postman, the glutton, the pond, the coat rack, and the forest. While the primary four actors in Niespodziany’s project provide a sense of stability in an otherwise fluid world, the ephemeral background players allow the book a sense of rapid motion through their whirlwind entrance and subsequent exit.

At the core of Niespodziany’s project is the recognition that the illogical exists but is always just beyond our reach. He writes in “[17]”, “The real challenge is not/ lassoing the moon/ but reeling it in once caught.” Each of Niespodziany’s characters encounters this dilemma at some point or another; each of them is able to feel the moon in their grasp but is able to bring it no closer than that. The saint, forester, and butcher have become either so disillusioned by its hardness (“They catch the butcher in bed with/ weaponry and a pint of ink./ Feet of feather, tethered time.”) or so hopelessly optimistic that such an awful thing isn’t true (“The saint/ waits up late/ for a sign./ The moon/ does the same.”) that they have been dissuaded from chasing this magic. Or, perhaps, they are too afraid to do so for fear that it’s just sand.

It is the boy who seems most able to hold at once in his head the fact of worldly limitations and the presence of otherworldly wonder, the boy who seems able to convey both in a single stroke (from “[30]”):    

The boy suspects

a world outside

the neighborhood.

He is a radio

reporting in the forest.

A simple lump in the throat.    

The mode in which Niespodziany has written The Northerners contributes to this sense of just-almost-magic, each poem offering its reader a glimpse of the moon, the illogical, the impossible, or the fantastic, only to leave us on the edge of wonder for the next poem. No poem exemplifies this impulse better than the book’s final numbered piece, “[36]”:

The director

refuses to discuss

the ending. He’s busy

in his pool, writing

something new.    

Niespodziany’s project is novel in method and tantalizing in message. It seems to implore its reader to listen for a radio signal in the forest, to really hear it in its nuance, then to cast a lasso 'round the moon, just to give it a go—maybe it’s ready to be reeled in at last.

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