Book Review

Michael Rothenberg, Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story, Ekstasis Editions, 2013

by Lisa Vihos

From the first poem of Michael Rothenberg’s new book, Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story (2013, Ekstasis Editions), we know we better fasten our seat belts for what is going to be a wild and eye-opening ride. The book begins with the prose poem, “Maybe I Want to Go to Canada,” and right off the bat, the poet exclaims:

…there are 17 countries more Democratic than this one. I want to go there!

The admirable thing about Rothenberg’s exclamations is that they maintain an undercurrent of ironic humor throughout. In the title poem we read:

How many of the 99% paid 30 dollars to see
Elizabeth Taylor’s Diamonds?

How many of the 99% go to Rockefeller Center to see
The million dollar Christmas Tree?

The poet takes us on a journey where the personal is the political and the political is personal, but never once does he proselytize. As the co-founder—with his partner poet Terri Carrion—of the world-wide movement, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, (now in its third year) Rothenberg is no stranger to poems that raise up injustice, inequality, or cruelty in a direct and confrontational way. Still, he calmly asks the reader:

How does one write about an era?

How indeed.  Rothenberg gives us a combination of broad strokes and specificity, of big picture and small picture, of public and private. He deftly takes all these opposites and interweaves them in a manner that makes us mentally leap and leap and leap again.

His poems unfold in Ginsbergian rant or Whitmanesque revelation (take your pick) as both ancestors are present in Rothenberg’s writing. His poetry comes sometimes in rolling rhythms, sometimes in straight, conversational language and other times in lovely, psychedelic lyricism with a splash of internal rhyme:

Forgiving fate, unfolding, luscious ripe and lotus great, iris true
Heart, where’ve you been, your swells of daylight ease through freeze of my cold life?

Rothenberg keeps the reader on her toes with a mix of short, almost haiku-like poems and longer free-verse rambles that continually stretch the mind, pulling in references from literature, art history, world religions, current events, advertising slogans, international cuisine, pop culture, and the inequity of commerce.

As we read, a story begins to appear with some recurring characters, including various friends, his partner Terri, and Ziggy the dog, who might just be the poet’s alter ego:

I walk the dog down the country road
He pants, old and tumorous: still tugs at the leash

With the poet and his dog, we romp from the forests of Northern California (Rothenberg’s current home) to Florida (the poet’s birthplace) to flash points around the globe:

Iraqi babies dead
Bombed Lebanese dead
Turn to the “Turning Wheel”
for instructions on how to act and feel.

In the midst of all the chaos and horror, there is this:

I went down to the ocean today and the sky and sun and water
were blinding and gorgeous chrome, so I kind of got caught

in light and isolation and could think of nothing else.

This book will speak to anyone who gets lost in how beautiful the world is at any given moment, while at the same time remaining cognizant of the injustice that is everywhere. From sensual delight to sarcastic wit to true despair, Rothenberg has gathered up all the bits and shards of life to guide us through this current era of indefinite detention. We get a chance to see the world through his poet eyes, like Ferlinghetti’s dog, referenced in the opening epigraph:

The dog trots freely in the street and sees reality and the things he sees are bigger than himself...

Lisa Vihos has two chapbooks, A Brief History of Mail (Pebblebrook Press, 2011) and The Accidental Present (Finishing Line Press, 2012). She is an associate editor of Stoneboat and an occasional guest blogger for The Best American Poetry digital.