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The buildup of a fine instrument, on Thomas Devaney’s ‘You Are the Battery’

Levi Bentley reviews “You Are the Battery,” a book of poetry by Thomas Devaney. Read further to learn why Bentley compares Devaney’s written work to the sculptures of Cecilia Vicuña.

Poet Tom Devaney portrait
Tom Devaney

Thomas Devaney’s You Are the Battery believes in you and in this moment and the next one. Devaney knows that the here and now can be a little drab. It can be dusty and grimy and dark, and that it’s hard to see what’s special about it sometimes, but it’s ours. With a little faith and stability and resignation, it’s possible to sit with. And then, something happens. This book does not promise beauty, although there are moments. It does not promise enlightenment, although there are moments. It offers the complicated intimacy of a family member saying something emotionally true for them phrased in a politically incorrect way. It offers reckoning with the limitations of getting close to a place, and interpersonal intimacy. It seeks to understand situatedness in race, class, generation, and how that means sometimes there is isolation within a social context. And it accepts that isolation. Is that love?

There is a little nostalgia here as Devaney doesn’t expound, but alights on particular moments, propping them delicately against one another, carefully measuring in more philosophical musings like “Time was opened wider then” and “not sound or the fact of sound but the fact of sound after the sound was gone.” You Are The Battery dallies among material observations in a way that makes you feel like you are glimpsing something intimate and rare and entirely mundane. You open your mind to the text like a cupboard, and these things are in you. You are charged as a reader with these careful maquettes. It is not so much the value of the memories, but of their arrangement in relation to each other that builds the poem, not unlike Cecilia Vicuña’s precarios or basuritas, little sculptures she built from trash gathered and then turned into delicately balanced sculptures that function for her as religious objects, prayers against a fascist regime.

“Several Unlit Streets Ahead” particularly unfolds the feeling of being present with the poem as it speaks itself into being. It opens:

a tugging as if you were prompting yourself to remember the song
it has to be night
that is not optional
it’s gone into your body, nothing but night
the final piano-piano has been tugged out of you
the whole room in the light
the whole light the whole thing, a dark yet fresh scent
room and mind adjusting           to fade is to remain inside the thought

You Are the Battery, is a Philly book in that it values patina and corrosion, and wild instances which do not erase, but rather amplify the trash in the streets. It is a book about aging in that it values flickers and smudges of transcendence where they appear, and holds with fondness the clutter and noise and general disastrous pile-up of time.

See Tom at “Tom’s Big Book Party: Getting to Philadelphia & You Are the Battery” on Saturday, October 19, 2019 from 2:30 – 4:30pm at Radio Kismet, located at 448 North 10th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123.