(Lithic Press, 2021)
Poet, award-winning translator, and editor Paul Vangelisti’s latest book of poetry, Liquid Prisoner, is a stunning achievement. The 77 sonnets that make up the collection are an homage to Shakespeare and a means of playing-off against the English bard’s influential sonnet sequence. Vangelisti’s methodology is explained in a short essay at the back of the book called “Stepping Into the Glass.” Shakespeare holds up a mirror, and this American-born poet looks into it and finds poetic gold. It is noteworthy that Vangelisti has published more than 40 books of poetry. He has easily edited almost that many anthologies. In 1995 he edited the collected poems of Amiri Baraka, and in the early 1970s he edited the Anthology of L.A. Poets with Charles Bukowski and this reviewer. Vangelisti is known for his serial poems, taking a cue from one of his literary heroes Jack Spicer. These sonnets spar with one another and at the same time embrace in a lean, yet lyrical manner: the sonnet as challenge—how to be concise and expansive in one gesture.
Reading this book I was reminded of the sonnets written by Sir Edwin Denny, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, and Ted Berrigan. The sonnet form never fails to bring the poet into focus—there is only so much space in which to get said what must be said. In these latter-day manifestations of the form, there is both of recognition of tradition and the desire to break new ground. Vangelisti, keenly aware of this, speaks fervently to the Elizabethan master. In his mind the sonnets are ripe for the picking, asking not for a critical response, but for the visceral and heartfelt reaction from a fellow poet. Forget the centuries of the past and think of the immediacy poetic dialogue is capable of engendering.
The subtitle of this book is “Reflections of Shakespeare’s sonnets.” The reader is advised to briefly look at the labyrinthine beauty of this early verse. One may find that Vangelisti has wrapped his mind around the complex simplicity of Shakespeare’s achievement in order to find his way and to “Bend and weep, / willow for me. Again a rough translation. / Send me much farther north. With or without: the chill in our bones.” Vangelisti’s goal rests on a resumption of Shakespeare’s journey, and that is what makes these poems so compelling and so enriching. Not surprisingly to this reviewer’s mind, the perplexities of the Elizabethan mind, the poetic mind, are no different than those have today.
Vangelisti sees each of the Shakespearean sonnets essentially as dramas. Within these dramas are questions of youth, age, beauty, the transitory nature of the individual self, and death. Vangelisti writes, “with music so unfortunately perfect, / one’s bad luck is simply whatever / one chooses it not to be.” This exemplifies the poet’s exquisite touch as he probes into the “mind” of the great dramatist. Who is the liquid prisoner? Perhaps he addresses each one of us, daring to see our mirrored selves: “Mirror, mirror, like a sail again / a spanking wind in the corners of the eyes / more bleary than age would alibi.” Are we not all in prison? Is the mirror a prison? The beauty of this sonnet sequence is that it simply invites us to be fluid and to see what we hear. This collection speaks to our continual search for understanding and for connecting poetic instinct with our reasoning. Paul Vangelisti meets the Bard of Avon and comes away with a rare and beautiful accomplishment.