by Johannes Goransson on Aug.17, 2012
Published a little more than ten years ago, Peter Richard’s first book, Oubliette, took on major themes concerning the nature of time, solitude, and mythmaking and responded to them with a dark, lyrical intensity that seemed completely unique. Richards arrived at a time when many young poets were looking for something new and surprising that was neither ideological and academic, like most Language Poetry, nor naively autobiographical, like the countless post-confessional backyard epiphanies that still populate most literary journals. One group’s porridge was too cool, and the other’s was, if not too hot, too bland. Oubliette was something bold, fresh, and idiosyncratic. A relevant heir to Keats, Richards demonstrated negative capability in the teeth of post-modernity, as well as the ability to “load every line with ore” and consistently delight by surprise. With his convincing pathos and spine-chilling linguistic daring, he made most other young poets look either smug, glib, or lazy by comparison. For me, Oubliette is still the most impressive first book by that generation of American poets arriving just after the hey (or hey-thrashing) days of post-structuralist poetics, John Ashbery, and a resurgence in homespun surrealism, a standout from a balkanized poetic era struggling for transition…
… After nine years, Richards’s third book has finally been published—this time a part of Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney’s vibrant new series from Action Books. It is his thickest and most ambitious offering to date, and again, it reveals Richards’s restless, forward-thinking aesthetic. Breaking somewhat from the clear lyrical impulse of his first two books, the poems of Helsinki are longer-lined and looser in syntax, and while still densely musical, these poems introduce a narrative element and overarching framework absent in his first collections. Somewhat misleadingly, Electronic Poetry Review refers online to Helsinki as a “novel in verse.” While “novel” might be pushing it, these poems do suggest a narrative grounding—a kind of bizarre fusing of Dante’s descent with overtones hinting at science fiction and virtual reality. There are at least two relatively distinct characters in the book: the speaker, who seems somewhat less autobiographical than the speakers of Oubliette and Nude Siren, and the beloved, here named Julia, with whom the speaker grows more obsessed as the poems proceed and who is only marginally distinct from the speaker, as she is always seen refracted through the speaker’s imagination and the filters that confound it. In a way you could say that Richards is back in his Oubliette, only this time, his place of forgetting is not a trapdoor dungeon cell but a transistor in an alien supercomputer or some cryogenic dream-tank for cosmic specimens.