Review of Broken Frequencies by James Alan Riley reviewed by Chris Prewitt
March 28, 2019
Shadelandhouse Modern Press
Stay with me here for a moment. What is the distinction between a “cultural shift” and a “cultural crisis”? Having lived in mostly rural and conservative places, I’ve understood the difference largely to be a matter of categorization. Those who can abide by “new” ways of thinking and being, who are not flummoxed or nonplussed by amendments to cultural categories, are likelier to view changes in the culture as “shifts”; whereas a “crisis” occurs when members of a society look upon people, ideas, or conditions that do not easily adhere to previously established acceptable categories with fear, confusion, or animosity.
Taken a step further, what does it mean to “categorize,” particularly when that activity has everything to do with how we live—in terms of law, identity, healthcare, etc.—because it has everything to do with our understanding?
These are important questions to me for what I hope are obvious reasons. And it is when James Alan Riley touches upon these themes that I am most engaged with his recent poetry collection Broken Frequencies.
Time is one of the most important means of constructing understanding. Consider this. One of our greatest beliefs is that people are capable of change. That means people are dynamic, not static. But how could we understand something being dynamic if not for the concept of time? Would a Permanent Now necessitate something (or a subject) being entirely static? Is time not a requisite for dynamism?
Likely, we don’t actively think about time in that manner, though. But how many of us wonder what could have been if, say, we hadn’t been sick and missed that day of school, or if we had taken that job instead of the other, etc? The possibilities haunt us. Yet we understand that we must progress in a certain confining manner: that of time. And once we have affirmed our decisions and made our moves, we are committed. We move forward.
Possibilities and hauntings come together nicely in the poem “Ghost Story.” I enjoy the following lines immensely:
I tell this story as true from the comfort
of two lifetimes away…
one of the many possible untold versions.
These are simple but compelling lines. They brought to mind, as many moments in Broken Frequencies did, this line from James Wright’s poem “Today I Was Happy, So I Made This Poem”: “Each moment of time is a mountain.” And it’s true: consider all the things that had to transpire in just the exact manner that they did in order for you to arrive at this moment in time. Each of us are climbing over Everests each moment of our lives. And it is not unusual to look back at previous expeditions and contemplate these journeys: how long ago a particular journey was, what other journeys may have been but never were.
Crucial to categorization is language. Generally speaking, poems that dwell on language, particularly panegyrics to syllables, don’t do it for me. In saying that, when a poet draws attention to language in a way that is not merely in veneration, I take notice. Consider the opening poem “In a World Without Birds”:
They know a bird when they see one.
They recognize feathers and wings,
but that’s about as far as they can go
beyond the different colors…
the generic woodpecker or chicken.
In a world without birds, all ducks
are the same duck quacking in circles
on some stagnant, unkept pond.
Clearly there is a relationship between understanding and language. We distinguish male cardinals from bluejays not only by our ability to distinguish the physical attributes of these birds but also in our ability to name (to categorize). When this ability is stymied, so is our understanding, at least until someone can correct us, can give us the language that we need. This is not inconsequential. It is how we understand our lives.
But even the most verbose and engaged and eager to learn amongst us get it wrong, for “Distance, like memory, can be deceiving,” as the speaker tells us in “Theories of Elegance.” Further, there are unavoidable failures:
I am trying to play a song
I cannot play, trying to explain
something that cannot be explained (“Playing My Brother’s Guitar”).
And then there’s disease which incapacitates. What appears to be Alzheimer’s disease alters reality for a man named Walter in my favorite poem of this collection, the tragic “The Catherine Wheel.” Elaborating on the events that occur in this poem would only spoil the poem, so to say the least this poem evidences the loss of language and categorization, of distinguishing between past and present, and how these losses make existence difficult. (I would ask that as you read this poem to pay attention to Walter’s character. He was once a man preoccupied with his future and how certain critical junctures in his life posed risks to the comfortable future he wanted.)
Broken Frequencies deals in heavy themes, no doubt, but it is far from inaccessible. The language is clear, and a poem never strays from the heart. I hope you take the time to journey with Riley in his collection of poems. I think you will be happy that you did.
Chris Prewitt is the author of Paradise Hammer (SurVision Books), winner of the 2018 James Tate Poetry Prize. Chris's poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Twitter correspondence welcome: @poetcprewitt.