All Black Everything

By Weston Cutter

New Michigan Press
October 2012

Reviewed by Jessica Plante


Weston Cutter's inventive use of syntax, imagery, and associative drift allow All Black Everything to move from subject to subject without ever getting slowed or trapped. And his poems do move. They dart between memory and real-time generating a sense of spaciousness and adventure. His way of disassembling and rearranging language and syntax as though it were Legos makes him a bit like a mad scientist retrofitting old tools for new uses. He manipulates and pushes language to create a way to more accurately measure and map the dimensions of experience, and therefore, self. Listen to Cutter's playfulness in the collection's opening poem "No Parable," "I too have spent my share of faith + the cherry picker/trucks off the highway's exit stand outstretched: we reach, craft machinery for the same methods." Here, Cutter rubs the unquantifiable against the particular, faith against cherry picking trucks, and effectively introduces us to both his search for a way to balance the intrinsically imbalanced, and his method, the mechanics of language. In other words, the inexactness of faith + the clearer purpose of the mechanical = Cutter's strategy for self-examination and awareness. Not that wonder and faith are unusual instigators in sounding one's barbaric yawp, but the odd, quasi-scientific approach to dissecting language, and therefore the experiences it investigates, challenge and disturb the inherent inexactness of language. Take, for example, "How to Be Ready For Everything," which opens:

           to pick up yesterday + crack
its thick honey. How
to be ready is not pockets
                       but matches, the act
is never carry but burn or if not burn at least warm, the rote mem-
           orization that is flame.

Like language, this poem promises more than it can deliver. Who wouldn't want to be ready for everything? Yet, the poem begins with a moment of disorientation and brokenness. The enjambments hack away at the playful tone on the surface and strike. We can't pick up yesterday. The poem can't deliver more than its medium, language itself. Language is inexact and has a tendency to blur edges, shy from depths, and generalize experience. All Black Everything points out why we should be suspicious of its promises.

But Cutter does not inspect language simply to expose its weaknesses and limitations; his curiosity breaks into and through language and asks if truth lies beneath. The duality of this exploration produces some of the collection's most confident and expansive moments. "Because God's neither season/nor storm and where we live the elemental word/is combine, both noun and verb, a way to fill/days and empty fields." Here Cutter manipulates several levels of concern—language, God, landscape and home—with a few swift-moving lines. Only with such an original and quirky logic can we, the reader, be pushed up against so many elements in rapid-fire succession. Cutter risks asking questions of the greatest concern: what is it that holds life together through the unrelenting, seemingly illogical shifts of experience; and is there a center to it all, a place where "the self" can feel safe.

Perhaps these questions account for Cutter's mild obsession with the concept of home, a geographic and domestic ideal, often presented in the collection as a place locked in memory: "Home was a cup of coffee, a kiss I'd recognize/from a thousand paces. The intake of breath before/my own name was whispered." An almost worshipful praise, an incantatory elevation, supplants Cutter's examination of syntax and language and provides moments of emotional tenderness, bringing out Cutter's charm. Lines like "Ellen's face is where my lips belong as between/the candlesticks is where/the salt and pepper belong," while still dealing with themes of location, dislocation, and mapping the self, have more heart, more vulnerability.

Cutter is at his best when his questions try, via faith and love, to locate the self not, as it were, as if it already existed, but as if it existed only because its depths and heights are actively being discovered. To discover the self then, one must "stand in a doorway + look out over/the flat of one's life, who knows what they saw."  At its best, All Black Everything reaches for nothing less than revelation and clarity: Cutter strips away falseness by stating his own terms, and produces a poetry that sneaks up on everything just to see what's real. "I'm all empty shirt" he says, with a jubilant sense of revelation, "a wineglass held long past the last/sip."