Ryan Flaherty. What’s This, Bombardier? Warrensburg, MO: Pleiades Press, 2011. $16.95, paper.
Ryan Flaherty’s What’s This, Bombardier? takes its title from the poem “Questions of Apropos,” in which the speaker dissects the physical and metaphorical constructions of an object simply called “thing.” The identity of this “thing,” beyond the abstract label Flaherty lends it, never becomes clear, despite the numerous demands asked of it, despite even the titular and final question:
Is it a basis of intelligence or just a molecular quirk
drawing me to the edge, my fingers going numb
from holding this “thing” over the opened cargo doors,
and I am holding what, exactly, bombardier?
Throughout the collection, this “thing” defies definition. While in the above example the “thing” seems ostensibly some bomb about to be dropped, at other moments it resists even that type of implication, remaining simply “a thing-sized / ‘thing’” (“Loops to Sequester the ‘Thing’”).
Reviewing a work which deals in the dissection of a foggy “thing” proves difficult. How does one avoid the pitfall of baggy abstractions? What’s the thing, finally, about the “thing”? However, Flaherty situates his general signifier in lush linguistic territory. “Essay on Not Knowing What I Mean by ‘Thing,’” for instance, starts with another interrogation of “thing” (“‘thing’ of my assembled evidence, ‘thing’ I measure against, ‘thing’ I am in possession of”). It continues, though, with exotic images like “scarves no longer attached to necks and snakes wind-whipped through no-man’s-land.” In other words, while the author’s “thing” darts and weaves to evade pinpointing, the careful construction of the surrounding language helps to render each mention of it strangely unique.
Flaherty’s book, though, is not all about the “thing,” which one might argue borders on a kind of pretentiousness or at least preciousness. In other poems, he exhibits a keen eye for the epigrammatic—that mainstay of the poetic idiom. In “Canticle Against the Canticle,” for example, the speaker explains that “[t]here is a certain shame necessary / to living well.” Later in the same poem, he desires “to be a prolonged / re-enactment of the Alamo,” while forgetting himself in “reshuffling the blocks // of dark.” These unexpectedly sharp and uncanny insights do all the work of the classic poetry of melancholia. Baudelaire would be proud. What’s more, one sheds the nagging vagueness of that “thing” and obliquely gains some understanding of it.
The speaker in What’s This, Bombardier? seems less concerned with the actual identity of the “thing” and more with the search surrounding it. For Flaherty, carrying that thing about means a “steady, livable, uranium life”—one of uncertainty and the inevitable vagaries of meaning. These poems gracefully accept that no answer exists to the constant questions of the analytical mind, that “the water is moving at least two ways at once” (“Notes on the Prefix ‘un’”). Flaherty’s unyoked, vaporous “thing” even seems acutely aware of its own instability and unnamable nature—if it could speak, that is. Better, the speaker appears self-conscious of his own inability to stop questioning. “In my defense,” he declares in “The Assembly, an Overview,” “I can’t put it down without turning to fragment.”
Finally, any haziness in What’s This, Bombardier? seems not so much imprecise poetics as a necessary component to the search for meaning at the heart of most any good poem.