if this world falls apart
By Lou Lipsitz
Lynx House Press
80 pp.

Lou Lipsitz next reads at McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington Village on Sunday, May 22, at 2 p.m. as part of the N.C. Poetry Series. He will be joined by Diana Pinckney and Robert Abbate.

The title poem of if this world falls apart from Chapel Hill poet Lou Lipsitz begins simply, with the telephones out and a call from one poet to another that is never made, imagining the next stepsno electricity, eating a cold dinneras the wires of the world untangle. The natural question following the title is “then what?”

At first the answer appears to be, “Millennia of human struggle and invention/ would be lost if it depended on us.” The two poets would have nothing to do but make dinner and go to sleep. But the poem ultimately finds as a source of redemption poetry itself: “Although, on the other hand, there would be the dance/ you would certainly do at sunset to lift our spirits./ And to accompany you, I would find/ a hollow reed …”

If this world falls apart (the winner of the 2010 Blue Lynx Prize) consistently brings the reader to a dark place and then pulls back. In “Magnetic Resonance Imagining” we are invited inside the very private world of that machine: “I lay inside the MRI, claustrophobic tube,/ its surface a few inches from my face;/ my body entirely surrounded/ by the smooth metal cylinder that held me.” It is a place whose bleakness is overshadowed by disease and the very literal loneliness the machine creates. But Lipsitz finds a space for levity: “I tried becoming a quick Buddhist/ because Diane reminded me to breathe and let go.” Occasionally within this collection you feel as though you’re let in on a personal secret, as in the poem titled “My Father’s Girlfriends,” which begins: “From time to time/ he slept with one who had/ what he called ‘real class.’” Spanning four and half pages to the ones without class, the poem becomes a rather detailed explication of the women that spill out like secrets, a displaced confession.

The second part of the book branches out into reimaginings of Dr. Zhivago, King Solomon and Sisyphus, and becomes more playful. In the poem “Variations on a Line by William Carlos Williams,” which plays with that poet’s “Saxifrage is my flower that splits the rocks,” the poet questions whether the flower actually splits rocks, deciding it cannot slip through them “the way the dream/ finds its way into the prison/ of the self and/ says: “Here’s the way out./ You don’t have to stay.” Similarly, in “Have a ____ Day,” Lipsitz takes on the hollow, obligatory grocery-store goodbye and fills it with possibility: “Have a/ riotously unproductive day;/ a grim jaw-clenched Clint Eastwood vengeful/ law enforcement day.” Lipsitz manages to turn Eastwood’s vengeance into something both emboldening and whimsical. He even paints the day into a kind of poem: “a day of fondness for beetles/ and macabre spectacles, of irreverence/ about anything you want, of just/ sitting and wondering.”

The collection seeks to elevate the mundane aspects of life and family into something transcendent. In “Counting,” Lipsitz recounts his grandmother scrubbing laundry the old-fashioned way: “with a fierce energy// as if something were trying to get away/ and she was going to catch it.” But more than just the memory, he recalls the habit that accompanied this ritual: “as the large stone/ wash basin anchored to the wall was filling// with hot water, she counted to herself/ as she pulled out each item in the clothes basket.” The poet recognizes the behavior in himself as an inheritance as he shovels in the backyard “little red pebbles and flattened gray rocks;// a pile of objects to keep me company;/ the numbers a kind of protest// to the god who made so many small things/ and tossed them aside.” If the world fell apart and millennia of human struggle and invention were tossed aside, there would still be meaning in these small things.