The Actual Real

  • Noah Wareness
    Real is the Word They Use to Contain Us. Biblioasis (purchase at
  • Robert Moore
    Based on Actual Events. Signal Editions (purchase at
Reviewed by Dale Tracy

Noah Wareness’ Real Is the Word They Use to Contain Us and Robert Moore’s Based on Actual Events show the actual real is actually weirdness. Or what they suggest is that the actual real is weird beyond our knowing: with our human ways of thinking, we can’t even get close. In Wareness’ words, “The world’s netted through with words, whichever / way, but always too fine to catch nothing at all.” Or in Moore’s: “Our descriptions / so mean a substitute for the real thing.” These collections are unsettling and also warm-hearted, insidiously serious, and astutely fun.

Each collection interrogates existing logics while pursuing weirder logic. Their ordering systems suggest as much. Wareness’ collection is lettered (the poems are listed by A, B, C . . .) and Moore’s collection is numbered—only numbered, with no titles or table of contents. The lettered order of Wareness’ collection points to its interest in words that take shape after being spoken, that “sped across all the room’s lines, animating in turn the uncountable shapes that had slept within them”; the sections of numbered “Providences” dividing the lettered poems suggest that the order is tenuous, a mere fluke of fate. Plus, Z has escaped. Moore’s numbering points to the contiguity from poem to poem: each poem takes off from the one before. The word “series,” for example, connects poems “1” and “2,” even if “[a]ssociation eats at logic like a newt licking a barn owl / in Twain.”

Moore’s Based on Actual Events uses a strategy of association within poems as well, such that “series” seems a good indication of what will follow in individual poems. Moore’s speaker tells us that “[a] standard / exercise in creative writing classes is to demand the inclusion / of three otherwise unrelated objects, such as a comb, a fish / and dialectical materialism,” and these poems halfway invert the exercise by showing how weird it is that things are not, actually, unrelated. The collection is interested in the borders that aren’t, and is “guided not so much by syntagmatic sequence / as attention to the multiplicity of non-linear textures.” The book’s back jacket calls these “colloquial poems,” but the collection actually features a successful mixing of registers and vocabularies as it channels elements of philosophy, literature, and pop culture. While Antigone, “for whom every word invoked / every other word in every possible combination / couldn’t do small talk to save her life,” these poems can do talk of all sizes and keep the combinations, telling stories about what might count as real life: “To live / is to make fiction, is what she’s saying. Okay, good. / That helps.” These poems help, if what you want help with is maintaining your complicated relationship to actual events. Or, as Moore puts it, “The poems on this side of the book would like it known they / have a complicated relationship with the poems opposite.” “True story.”

Wareness’ Real Is the Word They Use to Contain Us has a three-part structure: a story about realness; lyrical hauntings, isolated from the story; and weird poems. The story rewrites a children’s classic, the lyrical paragraphs haunt the story, and the poems explore the same stylistic-tonal perspective in diverse forms and scenarios. Many of these poems work with the philosophical end of the horror genre spectrum, playing with bizarre and nightmarish scenarios to “what if?” the world. They are also funny, sometimes in the gentle way of Calvin and Hobbes (a quote from which provides the epigraph to “Pittsburgh O”), as in a poem ending in film credits with “DOG” credited as “‘Noam Chompy,’” and often less gentle—actually, quite bloody—as in the warning that “you shouldn’t cut steaks on that wood cutting board. They were / alive, and it’ll leave ghosts in the wood. Worse, they’re the ghosts / of Joe Hill.” The poet’s name, which perhaps we should imagine in the same scare quotes that hold “Noam Chompy,” might claim not to have any, but awareness is what these poems are about, from the opening villanelle that declares that, in writing, “at best you see / a ghost look out that’s wiser far than us,” to the final poem’s downhearted wisdom that “seeing makes more seeing, this mind, / ours, running up to itself with shapes in its mouth.”

This review “The Actual Real” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 165-166.

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