OPPOSABLE THUMB by JOE ELLIOTSHARON MESMER Reviews
Opposable Thumb by Joe Elliot
[First published in The Poetry Project Newsletter, Ed. by Brendan Lorber, Feb.-March, 2007]
In this long overdue full-length collection, the oppositional phenomena Elliot mindfully catalogues work together to create an ideal form that not only partakes of the parts but produces a third, more delicious, thing, delicious because it floats free of all attempts to place it. And that third thing is often not an object, a state of being or an event, but merely a further questioning -- a caroming off of the edge of completion into a completely new direction.
The word "work" is of primary importance here, because the book is filled with references to utility and functionality, and questions about the nature of purpose. The first poem, "even if," addresses these ideas:
it turned out
I don't see
I have to
whatever it was
going to be
will have to do
This opening piece reiterates a bit of the overall sectioning of the book as presented in the graphic layout of the Table of Contents: poems divided into five sections (two longer sections and one shorter one). In "even if," those "haves" and "going to be's" and that final "will have to do" act as place markers or pivots from loving to having, from moving to resting, from exhaling to filling — as in these lines from "Rehearsing For Shows I Know Won't Open":
Does love have to have . . .
Swinging your arms back and forth like a kid so your walking
becomes as restful and clear as a found object
And if we dare exhale the sail will fill and the boat we are
in tilt and begin to move
Though not in relation to us
And there's possibly the key to these paeans to the revelatory familiar: revelation is something that falls outside our understanding:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Consciousness
doesn't budge, how could it, could only watch
the moving reflection of its feet into hooves into fins, etc.
O smiling etcetera, you never lift a finger."
(from "Office Work")
The open sound of that wonderfully archaic, stand-alone "O" asserts itself in several poems, and seems to act as a first or final breath of surprise as things constantly become other things:
O, intimate decompositions, ascend into wonder
(from "For Immediate Release")
Reduced to one enormous NO
O, terrible is the highest thing
"Index" is one of several wonderful long poems that are sectioned and convey the feeling of unfolding over time (having unfolded that way to begin with, with the poet as reporter: Joe Elliot as "our" Billy Collins). The others are "The Times Where We Meet," which is a kind of day-book of the month of January, and "Office Work," the book's pièce-de-résistance which yokes the "work" theme to a new idea, that of language and its contents (and, of course, its dis-contents):
… your void has a recognizable shape,
can be spelt and passed around. If that doesn't work
cut the image in half and re-glue it head to toe.
Tell me, isn't this the party to whom I am speaking?
Opposition, spake Blake, is true friendship. And Elliot's artful poems present opposition as the pivot into an understanding (but not necessarily acceptance -- that would be un-poetic!) of the workings of duality.
Sharon Mesmer's forthcoming books are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (poems, Combo Books, 2007) and The Virgin Formica (poems, Hanging Loose Press, 2008). She is the author of Vertigo Seeks Affinities (poems, Belladonna Books, 2006), In Ordinary Time (stories, Hanging Loose Press, 2005), Ma Vie à Yonago (stories, Hachette Littératures, France, in French translation, 2005), The Empty Quarter (stories, Hanging Loose Press, 2000) and Half Angel, Half Lunch (poems, Hard Press, 1998). Lonely Tylenol, an art book from Flying Horse Editions/University of Central Florida (2003), is a collaboration with the painter David Humphrey. Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in New American Writing, Abraham Lincoln, Big Bridge, Traffic, LIT, Combo, Van Gogh's Ear (France), Tears in the Fence (UK), Gargoyle, and The Brooklyn Rail.