[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1937421090″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/61lZi3syAL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”248″]Paul’s Office
A Review of
The Louder The Room The Darker The Screen: Poems
Paperback: Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015
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Reviewed by Colin Chan Redemer
“The Louder The Room The Darker The Screen,” as a phrase, reminds me of the adage, “empty vessels make the most noise.” The book of poetry by Paul Ebenkamp, despite its title and noise, is hardly an empty vessel. Rather it is stuffed with playful language, humor, and unlooked-for depth. I seriously enjoyed it even though I’m not the type of reader to describe anything as a “saw-wave feed of resonant channels” as Elaine Kahn does of this book on the back cover. Rather, I’m the kind of reader who uses a common adjective to emphasize my pleasure at reading. If you’re more of a Joe-six-pack reader, grab this book, skip the back cover’s artsy blurbs, and jump right in.
An early memory I have of this book is barging into Paul’s office a few years back and in response to clerical questions receiving calm answers while Paul shuffled colored papers from his desk. I had no idea at that time that those papers were the office worker’s response to graffiti, a way to stay engaged in craft while hustling for a living. If the term “office art” makes you want to gag, let this book challenge you to see that art is fundamental to humans; put us where you like— we will create. There are hints in some of the poems of its proletarian origins in phrases like “still teething/ what the mouth rounds up/ on a playground/ drift into wordy/ years of not/ leaving the office” which is followed by a series of slashes and backslashes. This is the boredom of email transfigured to joy.
In many ways the closest parallel work I could think of was “The Second Sex” by Michael Robbins. And I don’t say that because it is the only book of poetry I read last year, it wasn’t. But it was the best, and it was the only one that I bought copies of for my friends. These books relate on tone, if not on form. In its humor and its moments of attempted revelation, and self-revelation, Paul is mining similar veins. Readers of Robbins will like this book and will want to keep an eye on this budding west-coast talent.
Norman Dubie once told me that every line in a poem has to be able to exist completely on its own. I don’t know if that is a fair rule to judge by, it is standard that would frown on much in this work. But there are places where Norman would have been giddy. The natural lines that after you read them you realize needed to be said, “It’s too loud/ in here for it not to/ be cold outside,” bits of art that make you wish we put more effort into small things, name tags for example, like “Jazz Educator” in a technicolor drawn and doctored image that all but dances, and the resounding truth of “the lame doom of state school student debt.”
Wherever we are in this book we’ve moved beyond artsy snark. Welcome to Paul’s office. Which is a funny place too. His humor is both hand-drawn slap stick “Finish what you’ve” —full stop! And the witticism of a writerly self-consciousness “another line from Dante,/ maybe;” or just a clever turn of phrase, “It seemed from the program that nature’s whole message was/ DIE OFTEN/ This was still the mirror stage.” The critique I have of this work is that at times it reaches a bit too far and perhaps slips from the writer’s hand. In “Tapes,” for example, there seems to be a joke I’m not getting, and that’s OK. Or take the fifty page “Four Colors for the Based God.” It does indeed have stanzas that alternate through four colors, it has a poem within the poem, and it has some really smashing lines that are clearly true to the theme of the book. Lines like “of our imperative/ memoir webinar,” strike the chord of the office workman’s humor and “I suffer from/ the probably common/ delusion that I suffer/ from really unique/ delusions” shows the playfulness of the author poking light-hearted fun at cultural shibboleths. But then as we get to the heart of the poem we have lines that are so close to getting me somewhere, “Don’t waste away/ on depths and/ their surfaces,/ on surfaces and/ their depths, it said—// Of course it’s forever/ how else would it end?” I get that something is happening, but it isn’t clear yet what that something is. The line works, and I believe it is pointing me towards deep and important truths, but as I read I’d prefer something with just a dash more dogma. Fifty pages is hard to keep control of in a poem, and there is a moment when the poem seems to be reminding the poet, and the reader, of that fact, “Induce and yield.// I’m trying!” And I really believe he is. I appreciate in a culture soaked in cynicism that someone is being honest. And honesty well written is worth reading. This book is trying, trying, to host me. I never feel like the joke in Paul’s work is on me. And if exactly what he is trying isn’t entirely clear yet, well that’s OK too.
Being hosted is part of what I want in a good book. Break the rules, sure, but let me know how to navigate what you’ve built. And here Paul’s book excels. He never opens a parenthesis without closing it. I don’t know why that mattered so much to me but it did. As a Connecticutian in the bay area, a bit of me dies inside each year when the fall fails to show up. If you’re looking to bring color back into your life as the days grow shorter pick up “The Louder The Room The Darker The Screen.” There is light in it, even if the source isn’t clear. As the author told me one day when we ran into each other, “the cover glows in the dark.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com