Given the vivid corporeality that serves as the framework of Dan Rosenberg’s debut collection, The Crushing Organ, it is a small gift that the author carefully avoids indicating exactly what body part is the instrument of the title. There is no title poem to guide us, and though the phrase does appear once, nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, even its placement in the sequence “A mandible. My crushing organ. My outreach.” can’t quite dissuade the reader from the notion that the anatomy of crushing is not located solely in the jaws or the tongue. The heart and brain create their own claustrophobias; identity is malleable and ravenous. Every part is hungry, grinding, a reminder that “you can’t stay alone / and the lights are all on timers…you can’t stay alone / and you have to bend the wire hanger / into the shape of a human heart…my tongue is an ambulance / rushing to someone who’s already dead.”
Nonetheless, the mouth and its many sharp and moving pieces are ever-present in the poems. Rosenberg allows no respite from the need of food. His is an idiolect of alternating bounty and privation. The book opens in a “perfect field…so thick with life it forms a higher field” where “you’ll never go hungry again.” Yet this is not enough for the narrator who craves the rabbits and other animals that “make his field shiver.” He claims “I’d press them to my mouth / if I could. I’d bring them inside.” The plenty of this opening gives way quickly to something between gluttony and famine as in “New Idioms” where the speaker is:
cracking a pomegranate open
to find nothing but mist and hunger.
The pleasure of never having enough.
Homecoming to a place you’ve never been.
Or in “Script, where the speaker wakes enveloped in a storm:
bearing down, this violent bed.
The refrigerator is plotting
under cover of thunder.
Hungers begin to conflate in these poems. The impatience of the mouth is contagious and the rest of the body soon follows, identity pangs threatening to explode the speaker into a series of devourings like the “Matryoshka dolls [that] replace / psychology when the lights go out, / and how you can never find the smallest doll” or the video-game avatar in “Contra” who is “pixilated with love” and who, at times doesn’t fit his body and is distracted by slamming doors.
Nowhere in The Crushing Organ is longing, absence, and the failures of the body more poignant than in a series of five poems in the book’s third section that chronicle the love affair between the speaker and Resusci Annie. For those who may not remember their CPR training, Resusci Annie is the armless, legless, torso of a doll used to train emergency preparedness to Boy Scouts, paramedics, lifeguards, and countless others. That Annie serves as both a love unrequited beyond the speaker’s own delusions as well as a disfigured vessel for our own fear of mortality only makes his tender treatment of her all the more devastating. In one poem, he begs her to reciprocate his gaze, pleading “Don’t unseal my little humiliations…Clean one, why can’t I / retain your eyes?” In “Let the Happy People Dance,” noting her lack of arms, he offers “a little love / for you. Oh Annie, your cup of water still full / on the floor, I pick it up, cold and sweating like you and me…” Annie is where all hungers and desires are subsumed. They disappear into her sexless, blind, and motionless form. Even her breath is provided by surrogate, what the speaker calls a “caroling” in her “fiberglass…abortive slit” of mouth. The poem ends on what was, for this reader, one of the most devastating and poignant pleas in recent memory when Annie’s lover begs “When you touch me / you touch me like a small animal / touches its wounds, oh Annie make me twitch.”
Moments like that last glimpse of Annie, so inanimate and portable and prized, are what makes Rosenberg’s poems so defiant in their tragedy. Repeatedly there seems an almost placid acceptance of chaos and dismemberment in his characters as they continue to consume or crave, repurpose their wounds into small hopes, sublime twitches. Even a thinly-veiled Prometheus in the poem “Purpose” can reimagine his avian torment long enough to appreciate the subtle beauty of his lot:
...If I spread myself
thin enough. I can go totally limp
and their charades of speech will move me.
From high above, I might be said to ripple