Cunningham, P. Scott. Ya Te Veo. Fayetteville, AR: of Arkansas P, 2018. 96 pp (paper). $17.95.

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Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Ya Te Veo by P. Scott Cunningham begins with the poem “Giles Corey.” This poem retells the story of a victim of the Salem witch trials who is executed by pressing, or slowly laying increasing weight on the victim until they die. During the poem, the townspeople continue placing more and more stones on Corey’s body, but get distracted and start to forget, exactly, for what it is they are punishing him. At the end of the poem, Corey continues to survive, seeing the “brown to red to black” of the sky and feeling like “Every breath arrived like a letter” (pg. 4). The poem ends with him saying “More weight” in challenge to his executioners. This move—from pessimism and darkness to continued piling to a type of resistance that asks for even more—is the perfect frame to discuss P. Scott Cunningham’s first collection of poems.

The two following two poems—“Planet Earth” and “Three Plants that Eat People,” from which the title of book is taken—continue to emphasize this framework set up in the first poem. In “Planet Earth,” the first section starts

Summer. Men emerge from garages
dragging cans of gasoline and chainsaws
into the trees. (pg. 5)

The poem continues by describing the trees taking “their trimming like a human” and the kind of violence it is to chop a tree down. This naming of the negative, like Corey being sentenced to pressing, persists throughout the book. Often, as in “Planet Earth”, that pessimism is not a disbelief is the power of humanity or the world, but an admittance that humans are often misguided.

This returns in other poems throughout the collection like “Examining a Carpet”, which has a speaker examining a carpet waiting for a beloved’s return. The poem claims that “No god could have dyed a color this blue;/ it requires an imperfect concern” where the speaker examines the pain it must take to make something this beautiful (pg. 28). The pain of the speaker missing someone and the suffering that was needed to create the carpet, are woven together in a recognition of that pain. Weaving takes center stage here and plays an important role in Cunningham’s structure as the book progresses.

The reader is met throughout the collection with a piling on of different ideas and themes that continue to loop and reappear. The two that achieve the most prevalence are weaving and Morton Feldman, a 20th century composer and pioneer of indeterminate music. Both appear, and are conceptualized in, “Now a Word about Twentieth-Century Music.”

In this poem the reader is presented with a sonnet crown that mixes conversations about Feldman and music with Royal Crown soda, violence on cruise ships, and a retelling of a Seinfeld episode to create a complex play with form. The sonnet crown, already a weaving and interlaced form, becomes even more complicated in Cunningham’s hands as it breaks and plays with the form in a way that calls back to the music of Feldman and the sense of play, or chance, that some of his music had. Within all of this, there are also lines like, “infants mixed up, lost, or smothered;/ bodies thrown into the ocean” or “No one falls in love” (pg. 34-39). Even though there is darkness depicted here, the poem still ends

[. . .] We can hear him now
telling us how little he cares for us,
itself a form a caring, a form of belief
in the future of being human. You
do not have to be good,
the poet said.
Oh yes you do. Oh yes you do. (pg. 39)

This is how many poems end; with a type of hopeful look into the future. P. Scott Cunningham’s work often veers towards the obscure by using Feldman as a speaker or topic while also creating poems like “Two Epigraphs Without a Poem,” which is made up of only two epigraphs. Even so, he continues to come back to a sense of resistance and joy to the overwhelming confusion and cynicism present in other poems. The last poem, “January in Buffalo,” reads

The dark blue smell of the heat
and the shadow-flags of the plows.
Someone is shouting for the bus.
Some else is the reason. (pg. 80)

These lines exemplify the type of end Cunningham employs throughout his collection by making the sounds of the poem soft and filled with a lightness. His collection, then, mirrors many of the poems themselves creating even more stitching to unravel.

P. Scott Cunningham’s debut collection of poetry provides the reader with an intimate view of the intricate weaving inside his head. At times, the choices made in the poems are hard to pin down, like when a poem claims, “The more boring a piece of art is/ the easier it is to explain it;/ hence also to praise it” (pg. 17) or “to be beautiful means to be/ unjustifiably trusted” (pg. 8). Both of these fit within their respective contexts but are also so direct that the reader holds onto them through the whole book as types of ars poetica. Applying them to individual poems often leaves questions but when applied to the whole of Ya Te Veo, they seem to value the resistance to traditional subjects and forms that can be found working in all their complexities behind the poems. Very Morton Feldman, indeed.

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MICHAEL VANCALBERGH received his MFA in Poetry from Rutgers-Newark but now survives in Normal, IL. When not searching for ants his daughter supposedly saw while trying to fall asleep, he is one half of the comedy etymology podcast Words for Dinner. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming from, The Collagist, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Naugatuck River Review, Figure 1, Big Muddy, Apex Magazine, and others.