This is Rob Plath’s second collection of poetry published by Epic Rites Press. It is tightly edited and reveals a more sensitive and vulnerable side to Plath. Gone is the defiant poet/ warrior of a bellyful of anarchy raising his middle finger to American society and its empty values. Instead we witness Plath on a more personal journey dismantling his ego, stripping his soul to the bone, baring his emotional guts for all to see. In the most memorable poems in this collection Plath explores the concept of love, in particular, the harrowing, self destructive effects of its loss. He authentically documents the betrayal of his love, his feelings of numbness and grief, his rage and the process towards acceptance and personal renewal. This review will focus on Plath’s complex representation of love and of loss in this important groundbreaking book.
Plath doesn’t make shit up. He writes narrative poems based on his own experiences. In the interview with Plath which follows he explains why he has adopted this approach, ‘I prefer to risk it all by putting myself out there-as stripped down as possible…I've written this way most of my life. Before that I was mainly writing bullshit-detached stuff.’ His poem ‘the faith healers’ explicitly points to the method and subject matter of his work. While conventional poets play it safe and reassure their readers ‘there’s only beauty/ in the world’ Plath is intent on exploring the rot within, the secretly mushrooming ‘tumors of disillusionment’. He occasionally expresses a nostalgic desire to return to the ‘candy-apple’ innocence of his childhood, but characteristically, his poetry is a broken bottle of fucked-up feelings and memories poised to irrationally slash out in any direction.
In a press release for the book’s launch, Plath says that the catalyst for this book was ‘a damaging, crazy’ four-year relationship in which he almost married: ‘In a way, I am glad I went though it- like so many other things I write about that are very painful. It also opened the door to writing about other relationships…and also, other kinds of loss that comes with intimacy.’ Plath stated that before writing ‘a fist dunked in blood’ he ‘was always hesitant to write about relationships’ because of the fights it caused amongst the women he was with. ‘I’ll never be that way again,’ he says, ‘They all left in the end anyway.’
Plath’s book is his way of disentangling the debris of his failed relationships, his way of comprehending the sense of loss required for him to move forward. His approach is to closely examine his relationships from a multiple of perspectives until he has fully fleshed it out in all their complexities. His conception of reality is developed over dozens of interlocking poems and they need to be carefully read together to feel the full thrust of Plath’s self disembowelment.
The title of the book ‘there’s a fist dunked in blood beating in my chest’ is a motif which Plath uses to express the harrowing pain and anger he feels at his betrayal and the process of personal transformation he needs to undertake. His image of the heart as a ‘fist dunked in blood’ is presented through a variety of prisms. In ‘although it can be torn to shreds’ he cautions the reader ‘that/ blood-soaked fist’ is ‘only second/ to the brain/ in viciousness.’ In ‘what on earth does this thing in my chest beat for?’ he calculates that ‘this fistful/ of blood in/ my chest’ has beaten over a billion times. Now without love he questions whether his heart should beat at all: Are those billion beats ‘meaninglessly beating/ upon an/ exit?’ In ‘maybe, just maybe’ he sees of photo of himself ‘at six years old/ clutching a baseball bat’ and longs for the innocence and joys of his childhood before he knew women: ‘my heart was an apple/ for christ-sakes/ not a fist dunked in blood.’
Early in the collection there are a few key poems which touch on the joys of intimacy, of connecting with another person. These poems provide the reader with a framework from which to view Plath’s subsequent disillusionment and to heighten the tragedy of his loss of love. In ‘two cigarettes in the dark’ there is a brief moment of calm, of togetherness as a couple sit in the dark exchanging cigarette smoke:
they gather the smoke into the branches
of their lungs
& blow it out towards one another
they are both saying the same thing
their individual clouds rise above them
forming one shape beneath the stars
‘do you remember Ithaca’ is directly addressed to a former lover by the speaker asking her to recall some of the simple pleasures they shared. ‘fuck you, gravity, you bitch’ is about the sexual attraction he has for Sari who had large ‘pinky finger’ nipples and who ‘used to wear surgical tape over each one/ to keep them from showing when she wore no bra.’ In ‘I don’t think she ever knew it’ Plath finds consolation in thinking about the comforting rituals he & his partner performed in preparing for bed: ‘me checking the door locks/ her cracking the bedroom window/ allowing some cool night to slip through the mesh/ me turning down all the lights one by one…’ The poem ends ominously as they lie together:
a wordless time in the dark
only the lines of our palms reading
a peaceful future
if only so brief as a night’s sleep
In these lines Plath integrates his central ideas of fate- ‘palms reading’ with the notion that security and comfort in any relationship is only temporary.
Love is seen by Plath as ephemeral, as doomed from the start, as already multiplying like an undiscovered cancer within (‘this dark dance of replication’). In ‘sitting in the bar I see lovers racing to their doom’ he watches joyful lovers and raises his glass to himself to toast their impending doom. He sees love as fated, as intrinsically limited in scope, ‘there is always a limited number of kisses/…always a pre-determined amount of embraces/…before an inner ribbon that tallies them/ is snipped.’ In ‘fifteen hundred days & she was still a stranger to me’ Plath juxtaposes the pleasurable & innocent experience of eating a home cooked meal together with the underlying deceit of his partner: ‘the day I brought home that good cheese/ she was cheating on me// even as she smiled cutting up the bread.’ In the interview which follows, Plath explains the origins of his pessimistic view of love: ‘That comes from bad experiences I've had . Once one goes wrong, you wait for the others to fall apart too. It's like they're doomed before they even begin. And then you are also more aware of lovers falling apart around you too.’
Plath’s cynical stamp on love and its essentially toxic nature is bitterly probed in ‘love’. The poem enfolds like a manifesto of disease in the list of physical ailments love evokes -
this product may cause one or more of the following:
dry mouth, grinding of teeth, abdominal cramps, peptic
ulcers, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, loss of personal
hygiene…testicular shrinkage…extended bouts of weeping…
He concludes, extending his wrath to include love’s destructive capacities of humanity in general:
swelling of the brain stem, anxiety, paranoia, hysteria, domestic
violence, racism, war, & hatred for all humanity.
In the poem ‘some hearts are wood chipper machines’ he uses an extended metaphor of a wood chipper to describe the violent way in which his girlfriend churned up his love and spat him out in ‘bits & pieces.’ Similarly, in ‘that loveless peaceful shape,’ Plath reflects on how she had cheated on him and now bitterly considers the heart ‘a sick shape.’ He prefers the ‘dark rectangular ditch’ of the void ‘safe from the human heart.’
Arguably, the best poems in the collection focus on how Plath concretely deals with the day to day vicissitudes of his betrayal, anger, grief and renewal.
Plath focuses on his initial moments of doubt, when he first forms the impression that his partner of four years is fucking behind his back. At the aquarium in ‘as the sharks forever swim through my cigarette smoke’ he hears a highly suggestive Patsy Cline song and realizes ‘the enormous crushing truth’ of her guilt. She doesn’t confess her affair but a week later their relationship is finished. He also recalls fights they had prior to their split up. In ‘the monster in the fog at 5 a.m.’ They return drunk from a party & she pounds his spine and demands, ‘WHAT DO YOU DO FOR ME?’ and later cries, “I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ and packs a small bag and stays with her mother. The poem ‘other ways to get inside’ explores further the venom, the irrationality of a love/hate relationship which dissembles. Plath’s partner sprays him with insults and concludes, ‘if she can’t love me she’ll hate me’ and expects him to explode ‘w/my own unkind words.’
Plath is often driven to desperation as he sees his dream of love disappear. ‘always on the verge’ is a powerful poem which expresses his inner turmoil through the use of the extended metaphor of an out of control motor vehicle on a suburban road:
always on the verge
of swerving on the curve,
at high speeds
this shape, this heap
called a body
bursting into flames
This self destructive rage expresses itself in the smashing of ‘several pieces of furniture, in the downing of ‘vodka & beer/ every day for months’ (‘the unart of poetry’) and in the drunken exhilaration of driving in cars late at night (‘in-between love’). The poem ‘hearts full of war paint’ effectively translates the transition from love to the ‘cursing,’ to the smashing of glasses, to the slashing ‘at each other’s jugular/ w/ the jagged shards.’
In ‘the real goddamn battle’ Plath concludes that the real battle is ‘w/the enemy inside.’ Plath wavers between reveling in his pain and realizing the damaging effects it has on him both physically and mentally. In ‘getting the black ants of despair shit-faced’ he drinks himself blind to slow down the black ants of despair and to ward off his thoughts of suicide: ‘Every third drink/ pulls a bullet/ from the full chamber/ of the pistol.’ In ‘Don Juan of melancholia’ he alludes to Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. Everything stabs him: ‘every hour/ contains/ sixty/ arrows’. More explicit, is his threat to do himself in with his pocket knife bookmark in ‘forget flowers, knives make better bookmarks.’ He explains candidly, ‘words/ won’t/ delay/ the/ inevitable.’ In a rare third person poem ‘waiting it out’ suicide comes calling again. The speaker stares at death’s personified ‘frumpy ass/ in front of/ the gas stove’ and realizes ‘the thrill/ was finished’:
it was then
he decided to
wait it out for
it would take
blow jobs were
worth waiting for
In ‘this takes guts’ Plath fronts up to a restaurant and orders a meal he and his partner always used to order there. The whole process ‘is like going up to a body/ at a funeral// of someone you’d thought/ would never die.’ But Plath toughs it out to help him better understand his sense of loss. In one of my favourite poems in the collection ‘just a mesh of disconnected lines,’ Plath accidentally runs into his ex-lover and her husband. He is torn between knowing the intimacy of her flesh and seeing her with another man. In one of his strongest poems ‘as if it wasn’t crowded enough,’ Plath despairingly attempts to explain his sense of loss by imagining his ex-lover’s skeleton churning ‘in a tight embrace’ within him:
it’s almost kind of sweet
on those nights i drink away
& whistle a solemn tune
to this strange moving union’
Plath also lets us in on his secrets as to the reasons for his failure as a partner. ‘dear 1’ is a second person poem addressed to his former lover reminiscent of Ted Hughes poems to his dead wife Sylvia Plath in his Birthday Letters. He puts on a record ‘we used to screw to/ & lit the same scented/ incense.’ Sitting alone he smokes and recalls he’d often think of her as a ghost ‘& i was really imagining/ all of it- the love, the closeness.’ He realizes ‘there’s no shape/ beneath the covers’ now, ‘no one calling my name.’ He states starkly, ‘maybe i was a ghost to you.’ In ‘eating alone w/ghosts’ he admits that ‘I’m no good at affection/ I even hate shaking hands/ … i prefer the darkness.’ Examining his hands he concludes that they are ‘solitary hands made only/ for speaking w/ghosts.’ These attempts at self confession to accept some responsibility for the breakdown heightens Plath’s appeal.
Plath’s existential yearning for the void of Nothingness is inexplicable but real. In the interview he deliberately keeps vague his concept of the void: ‘It's the biggest thing you have to come up against in this existence. And that motherfucker is going to stare you down no matter how tough you think you are. I think it's humbling. Nothingness is humbling’. The poem ‘arranged marriage to the void’ probably best sums up his views. He believes the void is revealed after human beings step ‘out of their clothes’ of convention, & unhook ‘the bones/ from their frame/ they’d see their real suitor: / Nothingness.’ This concept sounds similar to King Lear’s ‘unaccomodated man’ or perhaps that of Beckett’s bowler capped bums wandering across bleak landscapes stripped of all reference points. Whichever way we may define or understand it, the dark rectangle of the Void is ever present in casting its shadow across Plath’s essential writing.
In ‘for some hearts just two factors alone are enough’ Plath has finally come to terms with his breakup and finds comfort in the knowledge that he has survived the horrors of his personal ordeal. He makes himself a meal and pours a glass of wine to the rim. He savors ‘it in complete silence/ & entirely alone.’ In ‘12 a.m. epiphany’ he sits with his cat in his room and she blinks three times at him. He convinces himself that this is ‘perhaps a cat signal/ to let me know that i’ve found/ something like grace on my own.’ This victory perhaps is a hollow one, one that will not last. The poem concludes in a tone of dark uncertainty: ‘as the hands of the clock/ begin to separate/ & night comes on deeper.’
In one of the book’s concluding poems ‘sitting alone in thinned-out rooms’ Plath, the survivor, points to a new beginning. A new hope. He admits frankly that his loss of love has meant ‘fewer pieces of furniture’ and the only solution is to ‘give it another whirl’, ‘to fill up a goddamn room/ again.’ In the interview which follows, Plath acknowledges that the last poem in the collection ‘skin magicians’ best sums up his take on love. Sitting alone, he sometimes imagines his room the same as before his last partner had left him. One day he is cooking for a new girlfriend & after an epiphany in which he transposes the legs of his former with his latest girlfriend he realizes that’ the old pair’ are gone:
& now there’s these
& you grin at one another
in all of yr newness
& you continue
stirring the black beans
thinking to yrself
how really goddam
crazy it all is
‘A fist dunked in blood’ is an intense personal collection of poems seared in the blood of Plath’s bitter/sweet experiences. He documents with extraordinary honesty and insight the thrills of love and the dogs of despair triggered by his relationship breakdown. Yet he emerges transfigured and a more resilient person & writer.
Plath is a rare talent. He is a poet of great courage, integrity and ingenuity. His book can be purchased here: http://www.epicrites.org/theres-a-fist-dunked-in-blood-beating-in-my-chest.html
INTERVIEW WITH ROB PLATH 19 APRIL 2011
Q1: You have a distinct preference in writing poems in first person about your real life experiences. When did you decide to adopt this approach and why?
A: Detachment is uninteresting to me--most of the time. I prefer to risk it all by putting myself out there--as stripped down as possible. I am drawn to the writers who are fully in their work. I've written this way most of my life. Before that I was mainly writing bullshit--detached stuff. I think narrative poems are much more honest and powerful than lyric poems. Lyric poems are bullshit most of the time. Full of literary devices and detachment.
Q2: You include some early poems in the collection which capture intimate moments in your relationships, such as ‘two cigarettes in the dark’ and ‘do you remember Ithaca’. Why didn’t you include more poems of love & intimacy to counterbalance the mass of narratives which later deal with love’s loss and the terrible sense of dread and ugliness it brings?
A: I actually think there are more in there besides those two--for example, "i don't think she ever knew it" and "fuck you, gravity, you bitch." I believe there are others as well.
Q3: A central motif in ‘fist dunked in blood’ is that love is doomed from the start. Where does this idea come from? Is there anything that a pair of lovers can do to extend their ‘predetermined amount of embraces’?
A: That comes from bad experiences I've had . Once one goes wrong, you wait for the others to fall apart too. It's like they're doomed before they even begin. And then you are also more aware of lovers falling apart around you too. Everything seems to be working against you. You ask is there anything lovers can do in order to extend love? Maybe see each other every two weeks . The day after day thing seems to never work and if it does, there's a hell of a lot of fighting and boredom there.
Q4: You have a great interest and facility in describing the biology of the human body. Skeletons, flesh, spines, marrow, lungs crowd your work. Is this related to the concept that humans are primarily physical rather than spiritual beings or are there other underlying intentions with this fascination?
A:Yes. The body completely repulses me and at the same time fascinates me. I feel hyper-aware of all these strange parts we have. I don't believe we possess a soul or anything that isn't physical. It all begins and ends with the body. We're meat straight jacketed to a skeleton. That's all I think.
Q5: You provide many diverse takes on love but does your poem ‘love’ best sum up your overall impressions of the thing at the moment?
A: I think the last poem in the book sums it up best--"skin magicians." The absurd act of "switching partners."
Q6: Your world view seems to incorporate elements of fatalism and nihilism. You often use the motif of the void. Does this represent the black dog of depression or something more?
A: The void is something that is so mind-blowing that it can cause depression. It's the biggest thing you have to come up against in this existence. And that motherfucker is going to stare you down no matter how tough you think you are. I think it's humbling. Nothingness is humbling.
Q7: You call yourself ‘The Don Juan of Melancholia’. Many of your poems drill into and try to fathom the terrible pain you have experienced. I sense you sometimes find a morbid satisfaction in this and use it to propel your writing. Do you think that down the track you might write a collection of playful, humorous poems which will reveal a lighter side of you?
A: I doubt that. But maybe somewhere down the road there will be something I will write that is humorous. You can never tell what your mind might want to spit out in the future. Or maybe I'll be dead before that happens.
Q8: In the back bio of the book the blurb states that you are ‘a significant figure who is carving a new path in the post-Bukowski era where underground poetry is without a father figure.’ Can you explain in what ways you are carving a distinct path?
A: I hate answering this question because I am very modest and that blurb is so intense. I'm not sure I know exactly what the fuck I am doing. If I had to name one thing though, in terms of carving a new path it's continuing to write with brutal honesty and not worrying about forms or literary gimmicks to propel my writing. It's day after fucking day of writing down the things nobody has the guts to say or think about.
Q9: Your first prose book Swallowtude: a novella will shortly be published by Epic Rites Press. Can you give your readers an idea what it will be about? What main difficulties did you encounter in the writing of the book?
A: It'll make Henry Miller blush in his grave. That's all I'm saying for now. I did have some difficulties with the book. Mainly the self-discipline of writing long, long stretches of prose without getting restless and quitting. Poetry is one thing, but sustaining lengthy prose is very difficult for me. I am very glad to be able to do it. The next one should be much easier.
Q10: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
A: Yes. A few. A strange children's book. A creative writing book. The creative writing book is actually a third of the way finished. The children's book is being worked on right now.
Thanks Rob, for the privilege of interviewing you and for your brutally honest comments.
Check out Rob Plath’s blog: http://mysoulisabrokendownvalise.blogspot.com/