Review of 'i am like october when i am dead' by Steve Roggenbuck

Steve Roggenbuck’s debut chapbook, i am like october when I am dead, is a work of ferociously subversive minimalism. The poems are concrete, and don't rely on figurative language to convey their imagery. But what Roggenbuck leaves out is, as in music, what matters the most, and Roggenbuck is here at work perfecting this ideal.

The poems in this collection are at most only a few lines long and (as most minimalist works seek to) leave much room for interpretation. I find much literary and political commentary in these lines.

Here is the first poem in its entirety:

i dont care about reading a poem
who do you think i am, robert frost?
i have never been in the woods and i hate walking

This sentiment, "i don’t care about reading a poem," erodes conventional notions of what it means to write 'poetry', to read and 'understand' it. The narrator places himself in the paradoxical situation of writing a poem about not caring about poetry, which reminds me of the work of Chilean anti-poet, Nicanor Parra.

Roggenbuck also questions the nature of the poet’s identity, inverting the poet’s ambition to surpass his/her predecessors (how I wish I wasn’t invoking Harold Bloom) to face the reader with the question of intention: The poet is (or should be) working for him/herself, not to please an audience which will inevitably compare the work to his/her predecessors.

The reference to Robert Frost, or rather, to 'older' poetry, is echoed again in a veiled reference to William Carlos Williams:
if you call me, i wont answer
i am sitting under the moon inside of a wheelbarrow
"So much depends on the red wheelbarrow," and the narrator’s placing himself inside it symbolizes a Marxist response to Williams, the fulfillment of the narrator's utilitarian purpose—in essence, existing as a mere commodity. The narrator doesn’t answer because he has no identity, no individuality in a capitalist society which claims to promote the very individuality it suppresses. Roggenbuck also shows how, to disregard and surpass one's literary predecessors, one must possess a categorical knowledge of their work.

In the title poem, Roggenbuck implies that doing anything in society (having hands to do things with) makes one complicit in society’s crimes, the horrors it commits:
i am like october when i am dead
there is my hand
i am like the killers of people
Roggenbuck also explores the generational conflict between parents and their children:
i asked my dad if the corn harvest is over
it is way over, my dad said
Here, the narrator is inattentive and completely misses the harvest while the father, seemingly eager to make a connection with his son—despite his son’s failure to follow in his footsteps—by using his son’s colloquialisms.

Roggenbuck also criticizes society's treatment of women, comparing it to the treatment of animals, juxtaposing secular consent to this treatment with the patriarchal ideology of Christianity (also implied here is the use of hands to accomplish these atrocities):
the hymnal at my grandmothers funeral says 'wives be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the lord'
five months ago i saw a video of a dog being thrown into a garbage compactor
There are also small, apolitical epiphanies such as:
oh, you have a smock on
As with all the poems in this collection there is no set up, only implied setting and action through simple, casual remarks. Conceptual work like this breaks the world and even life itself down into a series of non-sequitor impressions representing the small moments we too often ignore. For this reason, the poems in this collection remind me of the concrete minimalist poems of Aram Saroyan.

i am like october when i am dead is available for free from Steve Roggenbuck who has published it in the Public Domain. Here is Steve Roggenbuck’s blog.


richard chiem said...

@ Steve Roggenbuck

Q9: What can you say about i am like october when i am dead? What were some memorable moments for you with this collection?

steve roggenbuck said...

@ richard chiem

i posted a really in-depth post about my chapbook on my blog, so i would refer most people to that. memorable moments have included all the people sending me pics, emails, reviews, translations, videos, and remixes, as well as getting linked by ron silliman and john campbell. the response was really good. the worst part was spending hours printing, cutting, and stapling the chapbooks