The best thing about Aaron Belz’ second collection of poems is its elegant, affecting cover and its brief, innocuous title. Hear me out. Lovely, Raspberry is a startling, spare title, and the two pink ink blots on the pure-white cover easily lend themselves to represent abstract, fragile berries. By the time you realize you’ve been misled by the cover’s Crate and Barrel beauty, it’s too late. The lovely and the commas are meticulously wedged between absurdities and erudite but illogical bons mots. While you search for the poems the cover and title lured you in to find, Belz spatters you, the reader, with a loud, wet, passionate (in its strange way) ppppsbblblbltttt. Maybe it’s out of fashion now, but when I was a child, everyone referred to the rude gassy noise of air flapping through loose lips as a raspberry. Cockney rhyming slang is a fascinating thing, and the tart was dropped long ago, but nothing short of a stylishly-disguised fart joke in the title could make this delightful book more enjoyable.
Belz maintains a deadpan and affable voice throughout the book, whether he is lamenting the loss of his pretty face in “nice feet,” or dictating an impenetrable, Lewis-Carroll-ian word problem in “shifters.” His narrators shrug at the fantastic turns in his poems, unshaken by dates with a palsied Katherine Hepburn, talking tree piles that love Michael Bolton, bifocal-spectacled ferrets named Jonathan, machine gun-wielding TV clowns, or donkeys named Mr. Fibitz. Belz’ shtick seems obvious at first, but repeated readings reveal a unique flair for sophisticated innocence that is surely his alone. He’s silly, to be sure, but the silliness is controlled, modulated, and always thoughtful, with a child-like scrutiny that feels authentic and never devolves into camp.
When the book dips into wisdom, however briefly, it can be profound. “galactic orbiting robot force” is an absurdist interview. In it, the reader is introduced to “Irving Berlin.”
My name is Irving Berlin I’m 118 years young and I’m part Arabian racing horse and I like Count Chocula and I’m angry about the way politics grinds its utter Wendy right into dead stars as though no one cared about anything other than their next nonsequential narrative compromise
Politics, the identity variety, pops up again later in the poems “pans” and “you are you”: “If you are you—and you know you are—/ then please, respect someone else’s right/ to be someone else. We’re not all you./ Some of us are us.”
All three of these poems approach a serious topic with a dismissive silliness that seems final, a definite refusal to engage in a debate. The poems aren’t disrespectful, but they attempt to reveal that the arguments themselves are a waste of time, time that could be spent making each other laugh, delighting in each other’s otherness.
Possibly the goofiest aspect of Lovely, Raspberry is its function as a writing manual. The four-line poem “critique” sums up a refreshing approach to workshop: “That’s not very good./ Try doing that differently./ That’s not very good either./ You’re not very good at this.” The poem “vittles” is absurd at its base, a meditation on vittles and the various varmints that are likely to feed on them, but the varmints, vittles and critters lead to a slightly serious turn when the narrator suggests the struggling writer imagine a critter eating vittles:
Such fancy performs the function of a mental crowbar, that is to say, it can if you allow it to perform that function: you will suddenly remember three or four really sucky moments of your childhood that you had suppressed...
Belz subverts the role of teacher in an exaggerated fashion, almost aggressively refusing to offer advice anyone might find useful, and rightly so, for anyone seeking a serious writing compass within the pages of Lovely, Raspberry deserves to be ridiculed. We live in a time when it is rare to find anyone who might refer to himself as a “poet” who doesn’t follow that dubious title with “teacher” as its only bolster of respectability. Belz shirks the role of teacher and lets the poet hang out, unsupported. It’s a refreshing change when the country is in dire need of natural educators who are drawn to teaching as their first love instead of a sloppy second or third. Besides, books of poetry that attempt to teach poetry writing invariably come off as pedantic and condescending.
Lovely, Raspberry is by turns a laugh-out-loud caper and a shy, sweet peek at awkward relationship dynamics, but above all, it is an artful fart noise at people who take themselves entirely too seriously. Come for the giggles and musical language, stay for the way he looks at ducks: “I would still contend that it’s okay to look at them, even if a bit fondly,// the way a man looks at a child/ who’s scared in bed— consolingly./ For while we are not like them now,/ we must realize that we once were.”
Aaron Belz will be at Left Bank Books on January 26 to read from Lovely, Raspberry. The reading is free and starts at 7 p.m. Belz founded Observable Readings in 2003, and left in 2008 to teach at Providence Christian College in Pasadena; he lives with his family in Arcadia, CA.
Julie Dill reviews everything in 140 characters or less on Twitter.