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"Reservoirs without boundary": Reflections on the Prose Poem

posted Sep 18, 2017, 7:07 AM by Brendan McCourt
No other literary form is more immediate than the prose poem. A sugar-coated capsule you place on your tongue, the prose poem does not wait for your spit to dilute the taste--it must be swallowed whole. Once ingested, it lingers like Sartre’s nothingness, lies deep within your being, echoing within the heart’s core, coiled, worm-like. Then, it explodes. It breaks you apart into fantastic fragments like white light through a prism, into different fingers and folds of the multifoliate rose of yourself and itself. And once you’re done piecing together the shards of your self from off the floor, you delight in the thought of having another.

Such is how I’ve felt about the prose poem, that strange mutant of a form disowned and adopted by writers of all factions. The first prose poems I read were a brilliant series by David Keplinger called “Further Entries in the Notebook of Anton Chekhov.” Of the five or six prose “entries,” one about a man lying naked in a motel room struck me for its immediacy of situation and emotion. The amount of suspense distilled in a few lines of prose, enacted when the man hears knocking on his door, is enough to overshadow a few hundred pages of a thriller novel.

Then, there are the surreal prose poems of Charles Simic. Here on display is the essentially psychological beauty of prose poetry: it takes the rhetorical form of prose and turns it inside-out, upside-down, with false logical connections and complex, uncommon imagery. In a poem about a beheaded man ordering beers for both himself and his head, Simic ends: “It’s so quiet in the world. One can hear the old river, which in its confusion sometimes forgets and flows backwards.” Pulling the rug out from under the logical progression of prose paragraphs, Simic creates a tension unique to the prose poem.

Finally we turn to the prose poems of the Danish-born Carsten Rene Nielsen, whose poem “Questionnaire” is the source for this reflection’s title. Shown to me by Keplinger himself, Nielsen’s prose poems are the culmination of everything I love about the form: inventive, beautiful, and forever strange. With the knowledge that existence implies the cyclical fracturing and piecing together of self, Nielsen writes:
        You are lying in the dizzyingly high grass. You remember it as an aurora borealis,
        an insignificant, brief happiness. Or: you are thirsty and and dream about melting
        glaciers, chipped cisterns, reservoirs without boundary, nights on your back on
        irrigated fields. Or: you have fallen in love with the world and sit in a library with
        the first edition of the Belgian astronomer Quetelet’s catalogue of 10,792 stars, a
        register of all the world’s totem animals, a book on mushrooms that grow only
        under our duvets at night, a natural history of the glove. Or: you are here. Right

Feel free to piece yourself together again and read more.
David Keplinger’s “Further Entries in the Notebook of Anton Chekhov” is found in his poetry collection The Clearing. His collections of prose poems include The Prayers of Others and The Most Natural Thing.
The referenced Charles Simic poem, “The dead man…”, is found in the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning collection The World Doesn’t End.
Carsten Rene Nielsen’s “Questionnaire” is from The World Cut out With Crooked Scissors: Selected Prose Poems, translated by Keplinger himself.