Flashes & Specks (Diane R. Wiener)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

With the publication of The Golem Verses, her first book of poetry, in 2018, Diane Wiener set herself a high bar to follow up. In that volume, through a series of essentially untitled poems, Wiener’s imaginary golem whisks the reader and the author herself across a wide-ranging universe, at times asking the reader to follow in some high wire mental leaps. Now that her second book, Flashes & Specks, has appeared, those who have been awaiting it will inevitably be looking to make comparisons.

Flashes & Specks takes its name from a line by Walt Whitman that questions whether what appears to be real actually is so, or if our knowledge is just a matter of flashes and specks. In one sense, the title is an accurate description of the poems contained in this chapbook, because most of them are quite short and there is no golem in this work to bring together apparently disparate parts into a unity. On the other hand, the poems are not the lightweight will o’ the wisps the title implies. They are, in fact, demanding.  Wiener is not Billy Collins. Rather, another Whitman line comes to mind: “What I assume you shall assume.” To enter her world, a reader needs to have at least two things handy: access to the Internet and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena.

One poem that crystallizes some of the characteristics of Wiener’s poems and the challenges they offer the reader is “Mabon Succoth”:

Birds in purple wrappers,
typewriters with feathers,
two sentences, but one.

Pears west toss,
spell cornucopia.

Tapestries air fish
macerate lore,
stop saying lady,
knowing tramp.

Call up the bark,
salt and vine,
mold and gnat.

Chair mountain shores
drink down
strings, hickory. (p. 9)

As Joe-average reader, the title of the poem alone sent me to the Internet not once, but twice. It fuses terms from Celtic and Jewish festivals, neither of which I was familiar with. As one who likes the challenge of learning something new, this functions as an invitation to learn. Not everyone may feel that way, though. Beyond the title, the first stanza offers very haiku-like (even koan-like) lines. One might argue that the entire poem is a reconstructed haiku sequence. These un-Whitmanesque lines with their staccato cadences eschewing articles and transitions are typical of the poems Flashes & Specks offers. As it turns out, the poem’s initial stanza is the easiest to grasp. The next lines, “Pears west toss,/ spell cornucopia,” are more enigmatic, but these too are representative of Wiener’s work, as is the referential punning of “lady” and “tramp” in the third stanza.

Notwithstanding these challenges, not all of the poems require a reader to clean the Augean stables.    Take, for example, the poem “Ashes”:

at the base of a
snow-gum eucalyptus

ceasefire turquoise
grasshopper ghosts
swim-dream baby lakes

dead mother pouches
emptied of roos are
eyed by velvet worms

trapdoor spiderlings hatch

a beetle abdomen heat
signals koala mittens (p. 7)

While it helps to know that this poem refers to the recent fires that did so much damage in southeastern Australia (something that a reader ten years in the future may not know), no knowledge of that specific event is necessary to become involved in the poem. Wiener lays out both the destructive toll that the fire takes (“grasshopper ghosts”) as well as the chance for renewal that it provides (“trapdoor spiderlings hatch”) that complicate any simplistic interpretation or teleology. One is reminded of Stephen Crane’s poems here, but Wiener’s poem carries the hint of compassion. What is valuable is the kinds of dialogue that this poem can open up.

While a number of the poems in Flashes & Specks point to current events or issues of social justice, others are more personal in nature. “Blizzard,” for example, begins “Sloth icicles/ edge my home./  I knocked part of one down” (p. 2) and remains relatively free of uncommon references. More surprising than either the personal or recent events poems are the number of poems in the chapbook, such as “Nektonic Larghetto,” that rely upon a rather sophisticated knowledge of the vocabulary of biology. The poem begins:

yellow brings
cyanotypeits insomnia
an arrogant distress as
Berry warned where the
meditating slugs
levitate to meet snail
grasses… (p. 15)

While this is ultimately a poem about the speaker’s own personal relationships, it takes a reader who sees poetry as detective work to decode an entryway into the poem.  It is not a great stretch to say that enjoyment of the poem is less about the meaning hidden in the code than about the exercising of the mental muscle that it takes to uncover it. A string of poems toward the center of the book gives readers a chance to wrestle with these biologically related images.

There is a bit of irony in Wiener’s taking her title from the work of Whitman, the great poet of our democracy, when the poems contained in the book are clearly not aimed at the book-of-the-month-club reader. At the same time, Wiener has unapologetically staked out her audience, and for those target readers, there is a great deal to find engaging. Unlike Wiener’s first book, Flashes & Specks does not give the reader a golem for a guide. It does, however, give readers a unified sense of style, one that is grounded in many of the same impulses revealed in The Golem Verses. As a chapbook, it reveals the sense of a writer who knows that her work is one of a poet in progress, and those who enjoy what Flashes & Specks has to offer will be watching to see where Wiener lands in her next full-length book of poetry.

Title: Flashes & Specks
Author: Diane R. Wiener
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen was the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. With Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, he edited the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability; with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, he edited the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both books are from Cinco Puntos Press).

Read Michael Northen’s poetry in this issue of Wordgathering.