Robert Hershon, Calls from the Outside World (Hanging Loose Press, 2006)
Robert Hershon’s twelfth collection of poems, Calls from the Outside World, teems with voyeurism, absurdities, and keen inquiries exploring both interior and exterior climates. The book begins with the title poem, “Calls from the Outside World,” in which Hershon writes, “So we see that for slang to survive/we require a body of speakers/initiated in its use/large enough to provide continuity/and with a core of permanence.” Appropriately, this poem takes a look at larger language, the appearance of a word, the scenario where the word is introduced, albeit sarcastically. Hershon knows and acknowledges the fact that words, like people, need a body (or “speaker”) in order to last. And he also, in this opening poem, indicates the connection between the personal and societal—the link between the individual and what he or she walks through daily.
Poems like “The Sun Never Sets on Sunset Park,” echo New York School sensibilities, with conversational observances like, “Some crippled survivors of past civilizations/remained on the side of the road,” that have a more serious undertone. This poem, while a litany of what one sees in terms of changes in terms of colorful neighborhood, also hints at what New York once was, pre-gentrification. It is this negotiating between what one sees and something deeper, perhaps not as bright. These are poems that make the reader smile and think carefully, poems that amuse and enlighten.
As the book’s title indicates (Calls from the Outside World), relationships are pertinent to Hershon’s poetic success. He has an ear for what humans sound like, and what we think we sound like within one’s own head. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that also enhances the comic realities of this collection. As Hershon writes in “Neighbor,” “I want to reach through the wall with/an armload of sharpened intensifiers…But does it matter what she shouts,/but that she shouts.” Here the narrator is self-aware of relationship and relating (in this case to a neighbor), but the poem ultimately takes the brilliant Hershon twist, where observance gets questioned, a wonderful reflective poetic practice.
Hershon fluctuates between the real and surreal, serious and humorous, personal and objective. “My Passage Through Grub Street” begins with the lines, “What luck, Marcella, to hook on as an editor/of Dog World after Cats magazine folded!” This is an epistolary exclamation, tonally directed to a friend. The reader laughs and gets a lung full of charming personality. A few poems later, Hershon writes in “International Incidents,” “I say, we’re not/observant/as though we constantly/overlook details.” Here he is referring to Passover, and the scope of this lyric is more serious, worldly. An observation on what defines a culture, and how valid that is. Both of these poems are excellent examples of how a writer can simultaneously engage societal concerns with out abandoning playfulness; or how the personal does not always have to rely on sentimentality.
Hershon writes in “Cause and Effect,” “I encourage the trees to grow/tall this time instead of wide/leading to the arrangement of/the prescription bottles as an infield.” Here “prescription bottles” coupled with “I encourage the trees to grow,” combines odd imagery with a sense of the limits of man, what a person has the power to control. This same poem concludes, “moved from room to room/like furniture.” A shift occurs, paralleling man with object, redecorating in a certain sense.
Calls from the Outside World further cements the fact that Hershon knows his craft. The collection moves inside and out, that covers paintings, school, marriage, friendship, landscape, family, and travel. There is never a dull moment in this book where “the beds never get made because/the doctor is diddling the/chambermaid,” or where “all the olives can see out.”
erica kaufman is the author of Instant Classic (Roof Books, 2013).