Jessica Baran, Equivalents

Publisher: Lost Roads Press
2013, 65 pages, paperback, $15

A certain disassociation occurs when examining a piece of art. We may not know how much of ourselves to bring to the experience or how much to remove, but finding the balance often teaches us of our perception—its current state, and its natural movement towards expansiveness, which occurs by simply looking a bit further than usual. This experience should both undo certain things and clarify others, allowing us to pause, or be paused, while our surroundings continue to move around us. This positioning seems to be the stance of Jessica Baran’s book of poetry, Equivalents.

A winner of the Besmilr Brigham Women Writer’s Prize, the collection is titled after Alfred Stieglitz’s series of cloud photographs (looking at them is helpful for providing a background to the poems). The book is an ekphrastic project and the presence of the photographs leaves and returns as if a reminder of a sort of potential—a way out, or maybe in. Early on, readers are positioned “’in a time of waste and glut on every front, compression and economy have / undeniable appeal.’ ‘What is marginalized can also become a form of dissent.’” Here, and throughout the text, we are placed on the edges, observing and attempting to barter for a sense of acceptance by saying, “Totally normal. The normal. A better brand of inevitability offering a sure thing / of uncertainty.”

The book is divided into three sections: On Dailiness, On Dissonance, and The Panorama. The form stays mainly within prose, the third section being the exception. Much of the text is in second person, causing a sort of conflict as we trustingly follow the confidence of the speaker’s tone, which leads us further from normalcy: “Getting back to the black-out that’s really the sky. Where is it going—this vast space, this dark unknowing? Take a closer look—keep track of its behavior.” Though the “you” may seem unaware, it curiously moves towards revelation as the poems progress.

By overwhelming us with a sense of excess caused by our surroundings and various cultural objects, Baran demonstrates how we require moments of rest, or spaces where we can decompress, “Somewhere in between, in the soft, daily middle: everything that is/ effortlessly expendable. It’s there and then it’s gone, and it never has to leave a note.” We are placed in what is deemed our present tense, which requires a lack of control that we ease into as we look examines the collection’s odd pairings such as “the swaddled newborn stroking the leopard, the bear nosing the bison:/ all mute creatures getting along, making a natural go of it.” The logic becomes more convincing and urgent, and the experience feels both collective and strangely specific.

This collection teeters between the gesture of giving and taking—of excess and lack. Baran writes that we have certain ways we lend and accrue debt, saying once that the sky itself is a sort of debt. We are asked to look at the space from which we have taken and the accumulation of what we’ve released and left behind. Equivalents unclutters and reorders, enabling us to see around time, place, and our surroundings and revealing both temporality and timelessness. With these poems, Baran “gives you a view, then takes it away,” which may be the perspective we need.

—Sara Lupita Olivares