Paul Vangelisti’s Liquid Prisoner – The Brooklyn Rail
(Lithic press, 2021)
Poet, award-winning translator and publisher of Paul Vangelisti’s latest book of poetry, Liquid prisoner, is a breathtaking achievement. The 77 sonnets that make up the collection are a tribute to Shakespeare and a way to play against the English bard’s influential sequence of sonnets. Vangelisti’s methodology is explained in a short essay at the end of the book titled “Stepping Into the Glass”. Shakespeare holds up a mirror, and this American-born poet examines it and finds poetic gold. It is noteworthy that Vangelisti has published more than 40 books of poetry. He easily edited almost as many anthologies. In 1995 he edited the collection of poems by Amiri Baraka, and in the early 1970s he edited the Anthology of the Poets of LA with Charles Bukowski and this reviewer. Vangelisti is known for his serial poems, taking inspiration from one of his literary heroes Jack Spicer. These sonnets train with each other and at the same time kiss in a lean, but lyrical way: the sonnet as a challenge – how to be concise and expansive in one move.
As I read this book, I remembered the sonnets written by Sir Edwin Denny, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer and Ted Berrigan. The form of the sonnet never fails to put the poet at the center of attention – there is little room to say what needs to be said. In these modern manifestations of form there is both a recognition of tradition and a desire to innovate. Vangelisti, fully aware of this, speaks fervently to the Elizabethan master. In his mind, sonnets are ripe for the picking, not asking for a critical response, but the visceral and heartfelt reaction of a fellow poet. Forget the centuries of the past and think about the immediacy that poetic dialogue is capable of generating.
The subtitle of this book is “Reflections on Shakespeare’s Sonnets”. The reader is invited to look briefly at the labyrinthine beauty of this first verse. Vangelisti can be found to have wrapped his mind around the intricate simplicity of Shakespeare’s fulfillment in order to find his way and “Bend and cry, / willow for me.” Another rough translation. / Send me much further north. With or without: the cold in our bones. Vangelisti’s goal is based on a revival of Shakespeare’s journey, and that’s what makes these poems so captivating and rewarding. It is not surprising to this critic that the perplexities of the Elizabethan spirit, the poetic spirit, are no different from those of today.
Vangelisti regards each of the Shakespearean sonnets primarily as dramas. In these dramas questions of youth, age, beauty, the transitory nature of the individual self and death arise. Vangelisti writes: “with music so sadly perfect, / bad luck is just what / you choose not to be.” This illustrates the exquisite touch of the poet as he probes the “mind” of the great playwright. Who is the liquid prisoner? Perhaps he addresses each of us, daring to see ourselves in a mirror: “Mirror, mirror, still like a veil / a spanking in the corner of the eyes / more gloomy than age is the alibi.” Are we not all in prison? Is the mirror a prison? The beauty of this sonnet sequence is that it just invites us to be fluid and see what we hear. This collection speaks of our continual search for understanding and connection between poetic instinct and our reasoning. Paul Vangelisti meets the Bard of Avon and leaves with a rare and magnificent achievement.