Reviewed by Von Wise
Visual art by Tom Jessen
A week or so before most of the world shut down due to a global pandemic, I walked through San Antonio, a city I was visiting for a literary conference and that was at the time in a “state of disaster.” Those were the early stages of social distancing before we knew the phrase, the awkward creating of space between each other, the crowds of people unsure exactly how close they are allowed to be standing in clouds of excited anti-nervousness. I ran into David Koehn the day after recommending his book Tunic to a friend who also couldn’t afford to lose the reimbursement promised for a trip we’d already paid for. David was nice enough to give us a copy of his new book, Scatterplot, as an acknowledgement, I think, of the way everything was gradually shifting and the necessity for these sorts of tokens as valuable points of contact.
Scatterplot is a book that thrives in the world of a pandemic or of the internet. The poems resist a tangible unified center, relying instead on a scattering of ideas that together reflect trends. The book itself is separated into a series of sections and subsections called Deltas and Scatterplots. In this, the collection progresses as series of starting points, each following a larger trend and branching off as they move from one to another. As a whole, Scatterplot evokes a Whitman-esque sense of greenery where every weed stands out as a singular moment in a mass collective. What We Called Pickleweed Was Everywhere opens the book with disparate yet connected images:
The eyes of a scallop run the entire
Equator of their body. We raise an eyebrow
At cornfields, and grass fields, cherry orchards,
And architectural levees of the floodplain.
The quail root in and out of the field grass
And pearl-grey lizards scurry into the crisping brush.
A cliff of gnats steeple over the water.
The poem also knowingly includes the list of things left out, acknowledging the shadow presence of the omitted that fills any artificial gap:
As advised for aesthetic purposes, I leave out
Two geese, their necks straining above the spikerush,
How they stared us down. Let’s not mention
The two purple jet skis as they leap and buzz
Away from the docks at the end of the cay.
Let’s not mention the worn RV propped aside
The port-a-potty not far down the northwest
Scatterplot is filled with the self-acknowledgement of poems acutely aware of themselves, of what they are and are not, how far apart from each other they stand. The titular notion of the scatterplot organizes the book into a series of static images that move according to their relative positions to one another and the internal organization of the images within. They know what they can and cannot do as points of data and whether they follow the rules or don’t.
Beep. Beep. Beep. This is the sound of this poem
Backing up. I hear a piece of the house singing.
What’s the rule? Never write about a dream. Never.
I guess some people are just born to be assholes.
Among the included or resisted moments of omission are similar instances of recorded erasure, as in Scatterplot: I-Left-Out-That-Part Busted Sonnet Tanka For Amanda, as well as full erasure, as in From Catullus: Fourteen Erasures From The Latin Of The First Three Lines Of Carmen 48 Based On Rebecca Resinksi’s Assignment To Erase The Last Three Lines Of Carmen 48. The reader is invited to participate in Scatterplot’s scattering in Scatterplot: Poem To Be Cut Into Confetti, in which every word and punctuation is boxed by dotted lines indicating where to cut.
Even the speaker is delocalized as other people’s curiosities and perspectives overtake poems and scaffold or stand in for the speaker’s own thoughts. “What silences what?” he asks of the tongue-eating louse his son describes at length:
That eats a fish’s tongue and then pretends to be its tongue
Taking part in eating whatever the fish eats.
Like the internet or social distancing practices or scatterplots or the songs included on the Spotify playlist accompanying Scatterplot: Portrait Of The Artist As A Playlist Sonnet, Koehn understands the need to recognize the shape of the collective just as well as the individual. By recognizing the gaps between moments and recognizing the shape and substance of the space between them, we arrive at a fuller idea. The self-awareness of the poems and the we-awareness of the book helps make sense of the world at a time when the space between seems to dominate. “All down the slough, everything going to seed.”