In this striking debut collection, Michael Carlson offers poems that combine the concrete and the musical, while embodying a tendency toward contradiction. He writes by working with rhythms, structures, images, associational leaps, and an obsession with the sound of words, as opposed to narrative. The book begins, "A thing wants to pounce but can't," and this spirit of hesitation continues throughout the volume.
The first section of the book contains heavily rhythmic poems measured sometimes by syllable, sometimes by stress, dealing with rural landscapes, a struggle with disillusionment, and a reconciliation of knowledge and belief. The second section confronts the terrain and people of Carlson's childhood in Rhode Island, using longer sentences, riskier enjambments, and a more colloquial and emotional language.
The poems in the third section—which range from Manhattan to Florida, Vietnam, and Paris—share a tendency to be more fantastic and are formal in weird ways. They include an homage to Ezra Pound borrowing the vocabulary of his first book and the syntax of his last, a nod to John Donne borrowing some of his stanza shapes, a sonnet whose constraint is that each of its fourteen lines contains a piece of armor, and a sestina composed of four syllable lines with four end words that rhyme. In the fourth section, Carlson returns to Brooklyn, speaks from the present, and resolves his stances in a brief notational way that is reminiscent of Chinese poetry.
"In Cement Guitar, Carlson has staked out an intriguing and shadowy corner for himself, where 'you can hear all of something else'—something beguiling, a little crooked, and certain to deliver a surprise. Syntax gets teased and words show up in unexpected relationships: 'you will barb on the last slab of fray.' in Carlson's spare, musical poems, almost every line compels us to look twice at a world that's only partly revealed."—James Haug