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Adrienne Raphel

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017), selected by Cathy Park Hong as winner of the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize; and the chapbook But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016), selected by Robyn Schiff as winner of the Seattle Review Chapbook Contest. She has written for The New Yorker online, The Paris Review Daily, The Poetry Foundation, Public Books, The Atlantic online, Slate, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and Poetry Northwest, among other publications. Born in New Jersey and raised in Vermont, Raphel graduated from Princeton and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she currently studies poetics at Harvard.

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In her debut collection What Was It For, Adrienne Raphel revitalizes the topsy-turvy lyric and its evergreen sagacity. Through playground doggerel, charm, and riddle, these poems cry fair and foul to a world where pâté geese dabble in fields of lavender, crises get wallpapered over, hot air balloons stalk pleasurably, cash changes for gold, and the moon sinks into the sea to the thrum of the metronome. That world is this, our own and only, so reader, climb aboard: like a carousel, each poem loops round and round, granting dizzying vistas. All the while, these poems spill over with wonder—as in query, as in jubilee—just as a child chants why, but why, but why. By way of answer, What Was It For offers an immortal, resounding question.

– Jacket Copy

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What Was It For

What Was It For by Adrienne Raphel

05/08/17

There’s a fine art to saying nothing. A well-calibrated bit of gobbledygook can access psychological, emotional and philosophical truths that lie outside the purview of conventional grammar. Although recent trends favor economical, naturalistic literature, poets as pedigreed as Shakespeare, Lear, Carroll, Pope, Stein and Joyce regularly indulged in phonological gymnastics. That tradition is sustained and expanded in Adrienne Raphel’s irresistible debut collection, What Was It For.

These are dizzying poems. Raphel trades in nursery rhymes, limericks, tongue-twisters and fairy tales; punning and mondegreens and doggerel and spoonerisms. She seems to take particular joy in paradox and syntactic ambiguity. In lesser hands, these stylistic flourishes could read as ostentatious, haughty or even coldly mathematical. But Raphel revitalizes them in a contemporary context. She writes with emotional delicacy, keen self-awareness and, most importantly, palpable joy. Consider "An Owl," which employs jaunty dactyls and an enclosed rhyme scheme to explore the titular bird’s desire to dive into the ocean. The third and fourth stanzas read:

But O down still more into levels of sea,
Clear to the dark until water is water—
Magnetic senses, spiraling inward,
Pulsing and pulling concentrically

To the center of centers, wound and unwinding,
Original color in imminent light—
And the animals rotate alone to their right—
Life-in-death, death-in-life, in the upending sand:

Raphel’s form beautifully suits her content. While we’re on the topic of concentric ripples and unwinding spirals, she uses assonance and repetition to sonically mimic the imagery. Even the rhyming pattern and indentation of the quatrains call concentricity to mind.

A similar strategy animates "To the Fountain," a haunting but playful travelogue of a city whose baths have dried up and been converted to tacky fountains and a traveler who can relate to the feeling. "On the Carousel" and "So Many Metronomes" heavily utilize litany, repetition and double-entendre to both imitate the rhythms of their subject matter and convey a rather idiosyncratic neurosis. Frequently, the speaker is burdened by an intense desire to wring poetry from the tedious, bizarre or disheartening. There’s a stammering to Raphel’s voice, an obsessiveness. The singsong prosody often scans as some kind of mnemonic device, as though the speaker were trying to keep an idea from drifting away.

This approach is acutely pronounced in "But What Will We Do," one of the many apocalyptic nursery rhymes to be found throughout What Was It For. I’m especially drawn to the following stanzas:

The tree thick with chirping without any sparrows
The church full of honking without any geese
Duck-yellow lemon-yellow gray-yellow gosling
Things getting closer I’ll turn on the heat

...

The heat it turns out has been on the whole time
What will we do when the pipes are all hissing
What will we do when the piper starts hissing
Don’t let the rats come it’s not time to start that

Here, the speaker’s preoccupation with home maintenance helps her cope with encroaching despair. Those silly, lingering passages about heat and pipes (the likes of which appear throughout the piece at large) manage to crystallize both the physical and psychological setting. The language evokes aging, paranoia, illness, depression, perhaps even insanity. We are glimpsing a deflating world through squinting, jaundiced eyes.

But Raphel’s craft isn’t limited to expressions of mania. "Note from Paradise," the first poem in the collection, uses paradoxical language as a vehicle towards serenity. The piece opens “Somewhere in a Spain I think of as France,” and continues to describe “fields and fields, or one, of lavender.” “It is late summer, early winter.” “It’s fall. It’s spring.” “It was something like flying. / Well, it was very like something.” “Something supposed to be seen / is seen. Something’s supposed.”

Syntactically, none of these lines or phrases really communicate any concrete setting. But that’s the point. As the speaker’s roots bore deeper into this particular soil, the minutiae of time and space become irrelevant. The last stanza is a kind of statement of purpose, one that twists the preceding nonsense into focus:

What am I but a half-life
what do I do but I have
to do, to face these fields where they are
lavender first and by far.

Her blissful resignation is something like spirituality and something like intoxication. But first and foremost, it derives from and thrives in the pleasure of words.

An unassuming passage in "Glockenspiel," one of the book’s less affected poems, reveals volumes about Raphel’s vision in both a literal and a figurative sense. The speaker is returning from an eye doctor’s appointment in her old hometown, which she is suddenly able to regard with newfound clarity. As she surveys her surroundings through a nostalgic lens, she recalls:

I did the jumble two ways
and both ways were right.

I got VERSE and LIVED
and RANKED and VEINED
and ENVIED and DANKER
and DEVIL and SEVER.

Raphel’s poetic persona is empowered by the malleability of language. Her past, her future, her internals and externals – they are all products of a phrase’s multitudes. There’s a taut weaving here between self and expression which can be felt in the morbid gibberish of "Hobson Jobson," the Dylanesque ironies of "Boardwalk Block." When Raphel perverts the sonnet in "I Go Ballooning" or presents a coyly feminist twist on the limerick in "Artic Exploration," she isn’t merely playing with form in some rote, academic sense. She is operating technique in the service of imagination, and what she discovers in the process is spellbinding.

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