I sense an unflinching Sartrean sensibility at the center of Paul Otremba’s first collection, The Currency. Though many of these poems begin in pursuit of the poet’s privileged, panoramic vista of life, they return again and again to the vertigo of a consciousness that is constantly revising and re-imagining itself. “How can I know/the eye without its names? The city/except as diorama?” Otremba writes in “Gray Windows.” Perhaps Otremba’s aim in the The Currency is best expressed in “Gorgias in Love”: “I wish to discuss the nature of things.” This restless, critical mind is informed by a kind of Keatsian disinterestedness and a proclivity for elegantly rendered physical detail that is reminiscent of Rilke. Through lyric meditations on language, visual art, and the particulars of memory, Otremba achieves an enthralling marriage of intellect and emotion in this accomplished debut.
“Novecento,” the first poem in the collection, begins as a meditation on artist Maurizio Cattelan’s installation of a taxidermied horse suspended from the ceiling of a museum. Inspired by Bertolucci's film of the same name, the installation becomes a vehicle for the speaker’s understanding of the “already anachronistic machinery…” of history. The poem’s focus rapidly spirals outward:
We walk around in circles, imagining a room
above this one, where the horse is carried
off to, imagining the many uses for the meat
that must have piled on the taxidermist’s floor.
In this passage, the speaker’s attention shifts from the art-object to human observers as objects. Their elliptical pace mirrors that of the consciousness as it tries to come to terms with the vicissitudes of the internal and external world. The Currency captures a brutal, often indifferent economy of witnessing, as in the collection’s title poem, which recalls a summer romance in post-communist Prague. Yoking together images of high culture with the mundane, Otremba compares the impossibility of understanding history with the failure of intimacy: “alien when our lips /touched, lacking any “philosophical/significance,” just hunger, loneliness/what I felt each time looking at the bridge.” This intellectual sensibility is informed throughout The Currency by scenes such as this one, in which tourism and botched intimacy draw corollary between psychic confusion and the collective consciousness of a newly liberated society.
Yoking together images of high culture with the mundane, Otremba compares the impossibility of understanding history with the failure of intimacy
Otremba’s contemporary version of Keatsian disinterestedness succeeds in projecting thoughts and emotions onto the objects of the world. Written in the voice of a young child, the memorable ghazal, “Childhood Monochrome,” recalls a pre-verbal, almost oceanic state through a blue-tinted lens that unifies the poem’s complex sensory impressions. There is no room in The Currency for sentimentality or idealization of childhood innocence. The poem concludes with the speaker’s realization of his own mortality: “And if I die…/God’s idea, before I wake, a bruise retaining its blue.”
In spite of, or perhaps because of its destabilizing consequences, restless perception functions as a kind of prayer for Otremba. “Weaving,” the fifth poem in the collection, is a kind of ars poetica in which the act of weaving evokes the mind’s constant negotiation between thought and action:
I've tried to sift a truth finer than salt
from my mouth. It matters: I get up
or I do not. The books can wait, leaves
burn themselves these days, and the day
begins or it does not.
Here, Otremba captures an abrupt psychic shift that calls into question the impulse for precise truth. Often projected onto common images, the distance between expectation and reality widens the aperture of his meditations, as in the final couplet of “Weaving”: “Beyond these walls, there’s only a snowed-in / field, an egg just opened, but empty.” These seamless associative leaps from field, to egg, to emptiness enunciate an aesthetic turn towards gaps and absences, which evoke a world where no truth holds up under examination. Images of simultaneous openness and enclosure abound in The Currency, a testimony to the poet’s fascination with dismantling dialectical oppositions.
Like W.C. Williams and Auden, Otremba has an affinity for infusing mythological and biblical stories with an image-driven sense of aporia. In “Everyone Remembers Icarus,” he uses the occasion of Icarus’s ill-fated flight to explore the compulsion for self-doubt: “But when were we not // accumulating the endless/evidence against ourselves?” The poem conveys the dangers of self-doubt even as it posits the unexpected clarity that arises from acknowledging it. Like all of the poems in this collection, “Everyone Remembers Icarus” refuses the comfort of resolution in favor of a more enigmatic realism: “Yes, the boy flew, /but he still remains foolish,’ Otremba writes. Yet, the poem’s final line suggests that foolishness is a humanizing virtue: “I take back nothing. I regret nothing,” the speaker insists.
The final poem in The Currency, “Surfing for Caravaggio’s Conversion of Paul” posits the 21st century mind’s quest to derive meaning and purpose from a field of high-tech distractions:
Enter keywords: Caravaggio, painter,
Santa Maria del Popolo. How many
People are contemplating paintings
At this moment?
Although the speaker enters into tentative dialogue with Thom Gunn’s and Stanley Plumly’s earlier poetic exchange on the painting, Otremba is true to the complexities of contemporary reality as he sifts through its discursive layers. Restless and curious, the speaker takes in the violence of Caravaggio’s “whips and nipples,” wonders about the etymology of the word “salvation,” and finally acknowledges the ways in which perception is always framed and mediated:
If I were closer, I wouldn’t understand
more about why he covers his eyes
because with a click it’s a throttled Isaac
staring out, ignoring both knife and canvas.
This last, vertiginous shift in the collection’s final poem gestures towards another of Carravaggio’s paintings, “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Otremba leaves us with the haunting image of Abraham’s and Sarah’s only son (“a throttled Isaac”) gazing at the viewer with an expression of almost groundless horror. Carravaggio’s observer is perhaps an appropriate visual corollary for the reader. Though the speakers in these poems remind us of the constructedness of modern reality; though we know that the sacrifice will be interrupted, we cannot help but experience a version of authentic dread. This is Otremba’s most important achievement in The Currency, the expression of a fractured, multiple poetic vision that announces itself with reluctant, yet undeniable authority.