Noah Hoffenberg

Russell Edson. The Tormented Mirror. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. 87 pp, $12.95.

Report from the Rabbit Hole: Notes on Russell Edson's The Tormented Mirror

When I read Russell Edson's new book, The Tormented Mirror, I could not help but think of bricks and translation. That's because, in the critical/burlesque portions of my brain, are the ever-present voices of Peter Levitt and ee cummings, each remarking respectively that: "all poetry is translation," and "would you hit a woman with a child? No, I'd hit her with a brick."

With Russell Edson, a.k.a. Little Mister Prose Poem, a reader receives both aforementioned quotations at full-throttle, while being verbally throttled, in a good way, of course.

Edson translates the human psyche, from a language without words into language with very specific expression. One interprets his work and truly feels as if what they're reading is some kind of condensed essence, like a distilled Borges or Gogol. Our intuition tells us that Kafka's native tongue somehow lurks wiggling in the dark corners of his poems: the presence is undeniable.

In The Tormented Mirror, Edson throws considerable quantities of brick at human consciousness which is also a brick that Edson's original brick melts into. When one says "brick" often enough, or reads "brick" too many times on paper, it stops being "brick" and becomes much more like hieroglyphics or Prekrit.

Edson, I believe, would agree that this repetition of words and phrases changes meaning, just as with the "miles to go" in Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." As such, he takes us fathoms beneath the surface of the human psyche, where our thoughts echo like near-meaningless pings from a submarine sonar.

The Tormented Mirror pullulates with poems like "Accidents," where Edson pushes the point that nothing is ever an accident (even the free-associations of prose poetry):


A barber has accidentally taken off an ear. It lies like something newborn on the floor in a nest of hair.
Oops, says the barber, but it mustn't've been a very good ear. It came off with so little complaint.

This poem also summarizes his life-long experiences in writing poetry and living in the poetry world, as exemplified in Edson's "way to music" with his "whole head on fire." Edson pays homage to his own cult of personality and bardic "ear," just as many of us prostrate unto his intellect.

The prose poem, or the red-headed stepchild of poetry and prose, is often filled with images like those seen in a painting by Dali or a sketch by Escher, or better yet, a magic-eye optical brain-teaser. We all must go cross-eyed staring beyond the facade of Edson's oeuvre to see its true being.

Another one of Edson's patented techniques in creating a world of reverberation is to hold a mirror up to a mirror. In doing so, the poet opens up a wormhole into the possibilities of being. Edson's poem "Sleep," permits the reader to examine some reflections of reflections beneath the mundane reflection of those who are supposedly awake and bored with day-to-day existence:


There was a man who didn't know how to sleep; nodding off every night into a drab, unprofessional sleep.
Sleep that he had grown so tired of sleeping.
He tried reading The Manual of Sleep, but it just put him to sleep. That same old sleep that he had grown so
tired of sleep-ing . . .

Edson also acts a bit naughty in The Tormented Mirror, perhaps another reflection, this aspect happens to reflect his age: his gonads are catching up with him, and his verbal barrier of self-restraint is failing wonderfully.

There is a certain, shall we say, horniness to Edson's latest book. This horniness is a long time coming. Edson alluded to his furtive nature in earlier poems, but more often beat around the proverbial bush rather than jump in penis first. Edson has blossomed into a full-blown word fondler, playing with salacious ideas yet remaining conscious of his inner drives. So it goes in "Bread":


I like good-looking bread. Bread that's willing. The kind of bread that's found in dreams of hunger . . .

He builds us an upside-down world brick by brick, dropping the occasional brick upon our toes. Here Edson obviously cannot help himself, yet in the last line he at least acknowledges the consequences of his compulsive bite. The phrase "(I sometimes do this to keep my knuckles in shape)" again points to Edson's awareness that his sexuality, and being, are no longer that of a young buck. These little self-checks become a necessity of those persons in the throes of middle age. Some write the prose poems, others buy red corvette convertibles or take a lover. Thankfully, Edson chooses to write.

One ingests his prosaic verse and goes flying down the rabbit hole alongside Edson where they can expect to find walrus carpenters, talking clams and/or reasonable facsimiles. In The Tormented Mirror, there are in fact lots of other holes on which Edson seems to fixate, such as Madam's pubic delta in "The Alfresco Moment," the moonlit rectum from "Nocturne," and the belly button in "The Antiques Shop" to name a few of the many apertures.

Edson's prose poetry stands the world on its head and spins us away from our typical axis at a dizzying 660 miles-per-hour. Occasionally we fly off the edge of the universe, into a realm that we all recognize but seldom speak of. This is Edson's domain, a Freudian house of pain, incoherent jibber-jabber and joy.

In reading his work I am constantly reminded of Harold Bloom's expostulations on poets' prepubescent self-centeredness, an outright refusal to become another cog in the warped wheel of existence. Bloom indicates that the some of the strongest poets are those poets who cling onto their center for dear life. Edson is one of those poets, and it explains his Freudian penchant for pee-pee and doo-doo. After all, what is prose poetry if not a dialectic between the free-wheeling imagination of youth and the adult mind's mobius strip.

Edson has bravely jumped down the rabbit hole of his being, the place that holds "the secret which hides the final message." He deciphers that message with delicacy and grace.

From the abyss, Russell Edson's The Tormented Mirror confirms that "the password is nonsense," with notes tied to imaginary bricks that seem to fly up from nowhere, braining us when we least expect it.

e-mail the reviewer at
info on the writer
to go back to the home page