Sensorium by Richard Merelman. Bent Paddle Press, 2017
Reviewed by Fred Kreutz
The title of the 2017 Richard Merelman publication Sensorium (Bent Paddle Press) begs explanation. Yes, this reviewer had to look it up: “the parts of the brain concerned with the reception and interpretation of sensory stimuli.” And thus, the poet has created this collection incorporating frames, themes, and metaphors connecting to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. However, the reader must be careful not to expect poems simply describing stimuli in the world around us. No, what readers get are poems using sensory input that lead to expanding metaphorical journeys of human feelings and experiences.
Take for instance, “Heat Lightning.” The poem vividly describes a sultry summer night as the sky is raked with rainless flashes and reverberating thunder: “In shafts and forks and sheets / lightning whitens the ashen horizon.” and “There the lightning is brightest, the fire all- / consuming, self renewing.” But the poem is not about the natural storm; rather, it is metaphor of the storm in the people observing it. We meet a couple, ostensibly lovers, the heat and the lightning having dissolved out of their relationship: “You and I, / wordless as usual…” and “We do not touch; / we haven’t for weeks.” One of the pair feels the emotion–the ‘heat’, “Nothing could survive that force, I stammer, / my pulse thudding, thudding,” but the partner responds with a “shrug”. As the poem ends, “You follow my gaze / and when you’ve seen enough / you back away, slowly, without a sound.” Thus we see the energy, the heat, of a potent storm filling the natural scene while total absence of it lies between the two characters.
Similarly in “Blind Date At Café Deuce,” the poet develops memories of smell and moments of sight and touch. A couple meets on a typically clumsy blind date and chatter runs lightly:
a visit to India. The smells
sickened her in Bangalore.
I tell her the truth:
the same thing
happened to me.
The poet adds contrast in the superficiality of their dialogue with a most clever line break as they share their interest in the mundane. “But / we’re in love / with Seinfeld, oatmeal, Stephen King.” But the undercurrent in the poem explores a lifetime of hurt and sad remembrances for the lady. “Her voice falters at the end / of a sentence.” “Now she’s between jobs.” “Why does she blush, shrug, sigh, as if to erase / her words?” The man is a physician: “Hate to admit it, / I say. After all, I’m a doctor, // which she knows.” He is familiar with diagnosing by touching the body, feeling for signs of pain, and using the information that comes from the blood. “Her gold pendant glitters…” shows confidence and value, but it contrasts with, “I’m shy. Damaged goods.” The doctor in the man begins to show. “I brush my fingers on the back / of her wrist. …I prod the soft / skin and veins.” He is looking for clues as how to proceed, but the poem does not promise a sensual ending. “The light fades. / I bruise easily, she breathes. I nod.”
The reader must also pay special attention to Merelman’s titles as they are often a pathway to metaphorical meaning and/or sometimes a lighter punny touch. “For Jane Austen” contrasts lifestyle choices, ending with “I prefer sense / to sensibility.” “Rocky Road” is the scene of a youngster squabbling for a special flavor of ice cream against the parent’s wishes, but it explores also the treacherous pathway of decisions and relationships. “Still, Life” is about examining the beauty, colors, and style of a painting, but the addition of the comma between the two title words intimates the continual human struggle for achievement. “What Comes Around” talks about mundane things that circle—birds returning to their lofts, a boomerang, a carousel—but ends with a suicided brother accusing “Your lie / choked my life.”
Merelman’s poems find their form and organization in a variety of stanza shapes and sizes. His verse-breaks often function as paragraphs in the sense that they separate main ideas, expand on one another, or compare and contrast ideas between them. Occasionally patterned indents to the lines help create rhythm and add pacing to the poem as in “Cleaning the Garage,” “For Jane Austen,” and “What Comes Around.” Parallelism provides a delightful focus in “Gazelle Flip” where most of the lines start with, “for the…”, “for her…”, or “for a…”.
There are many levels packed onto each of these twenty poems, and as good poems do, these grow on you. Individually and as a collection, the force and depth of these poems increase. With each reading, these poems will engage not only your “sensorial” brain parts, but also your deeper sense of human relationships, values, and emotions.