Shudderlights

January 13, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Christopher Kondrich on “Throne Switch Thrown by J. Allyn Rosser

What originally drew me to J. Allyn Rosser’s beautiful poem “Throne Switch Thrown” was its skillful exploration of divinity in both the world we see, the world of wind and lightning, and the world we cannot, that of a switch-thrower, a string-puller, a god. Whether there is a god behind the world’s curtain is a question I struggle with, so when the poem posed a string of alternatives in its final stanza—“The wind has died / or been calmed. / The sky just then lit up / or was lit”—I lingered, was unnerved.

But what I keep coming back to in “Throne Switch Thrown” is the masterful way Rosser uses language to go beyond this question of divinity to what, perhaps, is a more evocative issue (at least aesthetically)—that of one’s experience vis-à-vis the tactile world. Indeed, if we sideline whether there is a switch-thrower or not, whether or not natural phenomena is, in any way, a reliable indicator of this—what we (and, by extension, the poem) can revel in is a poem keen to manifest how the very fact of experience is “absolute in its unnerving.” And so Rosser’s poem works its magic to wind its way through natural phenomena with language, which teases experience into sound and sight and play: “stuff of sky” is echoed by the phrase “extends its fluff,” the vowels of “unwound insulation” scatter into “one lumpy shroud,” and “too thin” is stretched into “too thoroughly, too over all.” Also, with form, the poem displays the fact of experience as lightning, as a zigzag absolute on the page as it is in the sky: “a sudden shudderlight / asks its electric / question / unanswerable.” (I think of Williams’ Paterson here: “the province of the poem is the world.”)

Yes, the question may be unanswerable “save by dumbfounded faith / and a natural rattle of elements,” but an unanswerable question is far more interesting than one easily concluded. What we get, instead, in the time it takes to pose such a question, between “the slackening wind” and “the wind has died,” is a beautiful, playful poem; a poem that explores and exposes divinity and natural phenomena with the kind of verve that puns in its title—the same verve that will sustain me as I come back to this poem another dozen times.

Christopher Kondrich

Christopher Kondrich is the author of Contrapuntal (Parlor Press 2013) and a winner of the Paris-American Reading Series Prize. New poems appear or are forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Guernica, Paris-American and Washington Square. 

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