March 5, 2009

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Something Has to Happen Next, by Andrew Michael Roberts, University of Iowa Press, 2009, 56 pages
By Dan Szczesny letters@hippopress.com

What is a poem: words, emotions or images? In his new, first collection, Andrew Michael Roberts tests the limits of just how compact a poem can be and still hold meaning and ideas.

In the collection he calls a “book of small poems,” Roberts works on the micro level to create a series of poems – images really – that are mostly playful and endearing. Many reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ small works, while others brought Charles Simic’s short line imagery to mind.

And when I say small, I mean tiny – some poems consist of fewer than 10 words. But when they work, they are brilliant. Two examples are “Explain Yourself” and “Strip Mall,” both reproduced here in their entirety.

Explain Yourself
my life was like this when i found it.
so i walked with it the entire way.
the chickens followed, they are not mine

Strip Mall
we stop to watch
seagulls swarm
the Burger King

When your entire arsenal consists of less than a dozen syllables you’d better hit it out of the park. And aside from his perplexing resistance to using capital letters, Roberts is able to conjure up funny and meaningful images with nearly no space or time.

Of course, after nearly 60 pages of such word bursts, I began looking for deeper feelings and the kind of depth that’s impossible with this type of form. Ultimately, the irony of Roberts’ book is that despite the bite-size length of the poems, it’s tough to make it all the way through without feeling like you need something heftier. Like empty calories, Roberts’ new collection seems to fill you up without giving you anything nutritional. B. — Dan Szczesny