The Irrationalist
Suzanne Buffam
Canarium Books, 2010
Review by Gina Myers

In The Irrationalist, poet Suzanne Buffam posits a number of keen philosophical observations on subjects large and small. Written in direct language, the poems capture both the darkness and humor of interior exploration and the world at large.

The book is divided into three sections. The middle section, “Little Commentaries,” is made up of a number of “On” poems—“On Possibility,” “On Ghosts V. Zombies,” “On Romanticism,” “On Riding Backwards on Trains,” to name a few. These short poems range from witty to cutting, but are delivered entirely deadpan. One personal favorite in this section is “On Love Poems,” which is reprinted here in its entirety with permission from Canarium Books:

A friend says relationships

Are only good for two poems:

One at the beginning

And one at the end.

Stevens says better to peddle

Pineapples than write love poems

Unless you happen to be

In love, that is.

When your lover shows up

With a basket of fruit

Thank him in advance

For the poem you are about to receive.

Most of the poems in this section use short lines, but in other parts of the book the reader can appreciate Buffam’s ability to write a good sentence. While the poems in “Little Commentaries” clearly use the language of philosophical investigation, it is the long-lined poems that are more probing. These poems work as a series of sentences, with each individual sentence being a single-line stanza. The sentences sometimes build off of each other, and other times seem disconnected or offer up a new take on the subject of the previous sentence. For example, each line in “Trans-Neptunian Object” is concerned with “facts,” as seen in the opening lines:

The time and place and manner of my death are three facts that don’t exist yet.

Facts exist for whole centuries and then suddenly cease.

Pluto used to be a planet and now it is a chunk of debris, number 134340.

Later, the speaker quips, “Some facts never exist.” Other poems almost work as a series of non sequiturs. From the opening lines, there is no telling where the poems will wind up. Even in these longer-lined poems, Buffam’s language is concise.

The Irrationalist is full of delightful surprises through its associations and turns in language. In “Dim-Lit Interior,” Buffam writes, “The things I would most like to change are the things that make me believe change is possible.” And in “Vanishing Interior,” “When I think about the fact / I am not thinking about you / It is a new way of thinking about you.” This is an introspective poetry that is intelligent, funny, and sad, and if it is the work of an irrational mind, then I have no interest in the rational.

© Gina Myers, 2010