Four Way Books, 2015
Perfect bound, 92 pp., $15.95
Review by Andrew Carroll and Nicole Reese
Know this, reader: there is no music in this book. Paul Otremba’s Pax Americana is an anti-poetic meat-grind, a factory milling its product in the absence of choice. Empire—the subject and object of Otremba’s collection—likewise begrudges its fated task, but marches on for our own good. Lines move forward mechanically, with this sense of inevitability. Nothing he can do. Nothing we can do. Nothing to be done. The author thus “learned to trust in mechanisms” (“Fear and Trembling”), and to speak in them as well, foregoing the music of poetry and providing the fundamental contradiction of the work: if one cannot beautify, one must literalize.
Poetry, however, has a mechanics of its own, found in metre and rhyme. Both, when done well, mask their imposed structure, to varying degrees for the desired effect, with song and dance, just as the jagged strength of human bone is curved by the perceived lightness of the ballerina. This is the magic of poetry: one can appear to float just above the Earth while always planting firmly on top of it. Otremba, however, does not wish to mask the imposed structure, and thus chooses to discard all of the above—song, dance, magic, lightness, metre, rhyme—and replace them with the mechanics of growth and waste. In “Fear and Trembling,” the author recounts other means of communicating—“the politician’s fear, the poet’s shadow play,” “the honeyed / argument”—but dismisses each for using “words as substanceless as cake in the mouth.” He painfully admits that this tactic is not his own, “because this is your sentence, what you’ve made of me.” Accusing the empire directly, not the politicians of its illusion, Otremba parodies its aspects in his writing. Pax Americana clearly testifies against the sickliest empire of the 21st century by mimicking it.
Without humor, the collection stages dry commentary on the secular politics of economies that fail to economize, but merely extend. The author has consciously reified—and, by extension, criticized—a machine that serves only the function of annexation and power, no matter the cost, giving the individual poems and their collection a mood of excess, as line tramples into line, image into image, subject into subject, invasion into invasion. This verbosity diffuses the spirit of the literature and creates a machine that sacrifices le mot juste for tous les mots possibles; a machine not of simplicity or synergy, but of bloating expansion; a machine called “America.”
Enjambment in Pax Americana appears to be designed for conflict, like the border-drawing obsession of the colonial powers—hard to escape the feeling that the words themselves would have split up quite differently if they had the choice. The borders serve their political function: they sometimes stir internal unrest, but, regardless, they prevent any troubling neighborly allegiances. In the midst of one of many run-on sentences in the collection, we are engaged in a very modern ritual (“From the Provinces”):
Muzak looped in the speakers,
riding the continuous fattening
of the bubble. We divine
our profits and collect now.
We throw out the net. Dredge
the wealth of distances. We cast
our vote-of-no-confidence over
the vast regions…
“We cast / our vote-of-no-confidence” is an ambiguity that refers both to what Otremba urges us to do to empire, and what empire does to the world, as it robs the sovereignty of other nations to “dredge the wealth” found there. Theft is an imperial tradition, economic bubbles but a more recent guise, and the necessity of each is ceremonially droned into us by “history’s / Muzak,” as America—dancing to the tune, ignoring the lessons—repeats the mistakes of every empire before it: addictive expansion, mechanical corruption, loss of founding values, and forfeiture of choice at both individual and systemic levels. This new, secular religion is where “We divine / our profits.” Words like “distances,” “vast,” and “fattening” describe the reach of empire and the length of the author’s sentences. Poems themselves span several pages, and are often broken into sections by Roman numerals, asterisks, or suddenly-italicized text.
In “Cicero on the Death of His Child,” a reference to one historical empire whose tracks America now treads, the author coldly explains,
…when a limb’s bruised
and swollen, we say
the animal is sick.
Likewise the heart. A brute
knows this; so how much easier do you think
for the wise? Experience
Cicero is taken as father, or protector, of republicanism, against dictatorship. Even a “brute,” or Brutus, can recognize tyranny in the symptom of its “swollen” limb, and knows the “animal,” or the State, is “sick.” Of course, “the wise,” or Cicero, also knows this, and thus regrets empire’s gross appropriation of his vision through time.
As most everywhere, punctuation in the two examples quoted above disrupts its lines internally, while enjambment imposes contrived borders on the natural development of thought. Otremba follows the canon of letting no single line go by dormant. Each line is worth experiencing. Yet, Otremba does not let lines settle conceptually, individually. This style of writing falls under Stein’s approach to language as experiential; it does not cater to narrative or its need to resolve. In the author’s case, this results in thoughtful, isolated insights, unbridged from their own thematic development.
Pax Americana contains the present and the future in visions of an apocalypse now-and-coming. In words, the collection recreates the collateral damage of an empire collapsing; the splintered limbs of sentences are fragments that once constituted an animal. Otremba, as mortician, embalms the disaster and then reveals the corpse as proof of the deceased to a loved one, some patriot of the empire. She puzzles, This is not America.
The message of defeat is delivered with nearly numb application in “Epistle”: “In my soul, / the animal would lie down if I’d let it.” But the death is not final, for this is Pax Americana, a period of smokescreen stability offered by the force of the empire, a carcass holding the corpse together. “Fellow members, / I know it’s our blind faith in speculation / that keeps the meat from rot” (“To the Architects of Our Present Misfortune”).
Further images of sensory perversion are presented in the first poem, “Auspices,” where the reader is introduced to “a grimy / congress of incomprehensibles bathing in oil-stained puddles.” Meant as warning—the earthly birds are gathered, bathing in the unnatural—it foretells on two levels. First, one cannot ignore the choice of “congress,” as America’s legislature mirrors its own constituency less and less, opting instead to be a composite Frankenstein of the same corporate interests who bathe the Earth in oil.
Second, as self-analysis, the lines, involving a rare use of close consonance for Otremba, serve as warning for the collection. The works that follow this initial entry are descriptions of empire, day-dreams of another life, longings for a lost lover, ideal, or friend, and offhand observations of how wrong it all went; they are a grimy, unpoetic congress of half-fleshed musings, empty plastic containers that once carried sustenance, and “corruption[s] of meat.” Throughout, “meat” serves as metaphor on many levels, both external and internal: for the ethics of human-kind, for the notorious American diet, for the American dream, for poetry as a source of nutrition. Each, in turn, the author has negated, corrupted, to present the animal, dead—a ritual reenactment of what empire has wrought.