Monday, June 20, 2016

Frank Russo: Poems on Human History

Frank Russo, In the Museum of Creation. Parkville Vic. (Australia), University of Melbourne: Five Islands Press, 2015. 82 pages, paper. $7.99U.S. (Kindle). ISBN 978-0-7340-5027-4.

Marianne Moore described poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” but in Frank Russo’s collection, In the Museum of Creation, both the museums and their contents are real. Moreover, the objects described grow larger than life within the poems, telling stories of human history that shimmer with new meaning. Russo, an Australian native who lives in Sydney, has roamed the world, from America and Europe to the Far East, setting his poems in museums of one sort or another – when a setting is not an actual museum, the poet’s eye has turned it into one.

Although the poet makes occasional stops in the world’s great art museums – such as Florence’s Uffizi for “Portrait of a Dwarf,” his usual haunts are those which cater to the public’s taste for the oddball, quirky, macabre, or unusual. Such sites offer him the opportunity for ironic humor, as well as sharp meditations on the passage of time, human values, and what humanity has made of our long tenure on Earth.

These poems are as far as you can get from the musty, crusty, or dusty aura that clings to some museums. They offer bright, fresh, startlingly precise images on subjects ranging from science, religion, and technology, to love and evil and death. Not only are they a delight to read, but they take you through the pages as smoothly as eating a bowl of vanilla pudding on a summer’s day while they show you the “mess” of creation (or what humans have made of it).

The title poem, “In the Museum of Creation,” weaves together a conglomeration of objects discovered in creationist museums in California, Texas and Kentucky, remnants from pre-history and early human history that call up a humorous twist from the deep past. During the poet’s journey, getting lost near Abilene, he finds a helpful guide who points “in the direction of the dinosaur fields,/ where the fossil of a human finger/ from a girl’s left hand/was found in Cretaceous earth.” A detail to whet the appetites of the museum-going public.

In “The Study, 20 Maresfield Gardens,” Russo takes readers to the Freud Museum in London, which re-creates Freud’s study and consulting room. The poet imagines himself on the psychoanalyst’s couch, recounting a dream “in which you have sex with your neighbor’s wife/ and butcher his dog.”  Then he puts Freud on the couch, trying to interpret objects beloved by Freud, including a petrified porcupine and the Baboon of Thoth. The gift shop proves something of a shock, full of Freud effigies, including novelty rubber ducks and take-home inkblot tests. A final irony rescues Freud’s memory from the silly commercialism: “small boxes are packed/ with his chocolate silhouettes – / inside their wrappers, quotes unfurl/ as from fortune cookies: ‘In the act of devouring him/ they acquired a portion of his strength.’”

One of the loveliest lyrics, “The parachutists, 1943,” recalls the American bombing of a village in Southern Italy in language airy as the silk parachutes that descended on the land. The villagers mostly saved themselves by retreating to caves the night before, then gathered the remaining silk parachutes afterwards, to use for practical purposes. Yet not all were saved; a boy’s parachute folded, “tumbling down to earth/ to form a shroud/ for broken bones and battered skin.”

One of the interesting strategies Russo uses in many poems is to juxtapose a description of objects from the past with a jarring jolt of the here and now, as in “The Caves of Arapuerca,” which contain the oldest known record of human habitation, as well as the oldest known object used as a symbol – a piece of pink quartz. As the guide explains, a tourist scoffs: “See this rock? It’s proof/ cavemen could bake pizza.”

Although most of the poems take a matter-of-fact, observing tone on the surface, they convey a rich array of moods – from the meditative and elegiac to the surprising and humorous. One of these, “What Voltaire & Rousseau say to each other at night,” takes place in the Pantheon as the poet stands before the tombs of the two philosophers, musing about what they might say to each other, given all that has happened since their time. Beneath the humor is the melancholy conclusion that up until now, neither Nature nor Reason has won a resounding victory.

In Russo’s excellent poems, beneath the grotesque and the grand, the ancient and the modern, the irony and the sadness, there lies a sense of the dignity and value of human life in spite of all the reasons for despair. A line from “Relics from the Golden Age” sums up the feeling of the whole collection: “There’s a comfort in seeing/ these things – the objects that can outlast an empire.”

- Nina Tassi has recently published her third book of poetry, Spirit Ascending, and is working on a collection of new poems, Light and Glory.