If it is poetry, we should feel physically as if the tops of our heads were taken off. At least, that is the standard that Emily Dickinson proposed. And measured by this standard, Geoff Rips's The Calculus of Falling Bodies is poetry. With the process of how they grow to completion from the first line, the use of metaphors and similes, and their thematic scope, the poems in this collection will take the top of your head off.
These poems, which Geoff Rips wrote over the course of about four decades, as he mentions in his preface, "Poetry, Journalism, Writing, the World," are a pleasure to get into. Some have zinger first lines: "So much of the world is floating" (5), "There are cracks in the body of love" (17), "Tonight the world started over" (32), "War is a cure for loneliness ..." (63). Some first lines expand into the next lines, such as in "Halitosis," where all eleven lines of the poem keep the same intensity: "When we kissed / death blew from your mouth / like a warm wind over Gettysburg" (12).
Most of these poems, however, start on a more low-key note and grow into completion. A perfect example of this, the first poem, "Compost" (2), not only introduces the collection's themes but also embodies its message in its own form. As an ecological poem about the interconnectedness of all living things, or "our community of amino acids," it observes what all poetry is really about—life and death—in the most basic processes in a compost pile: "death churning itself to life." The setting is a simple scene at home. One of the poet's daughters takes kitchen scraps out to the family's compost heap—while the poet-father wants to teach her about this generative process and its heat; on that occasion, he also reminisces about his daughter's birth. The long lines of this poem contain life—life in its circular repetitions. The flow approximates life's circular flow. Its first three lines list the items ready to be taken out to the compost with its "darkening moist leaves" (line 4), and its last lines echo the beginning lines with "Orange rind, elm leaf" and the "generating heat at the heart of it all." In this manner, the poem functions as a metaphor of life—or, perhaps, it is not a trope at all but part of life itself.
In general, the manner in which Rips uses metaphor and simile adds to his work's poeticity. In my thinking about metaphor and simile, I follow [End Page 87] to some extent Donald Davidson's approach in "What Metaphors Mean." A metaphor is not simply saying that x equals y, that is, implying that two unlike things are the same; rather, it is jumping from one frame x to another frame y to "see" one thing in a different and surprising context. Perhaps I have lived in Texas long enough to appreciate "[b]rown fingernails of shame" as an appropriate metaphor for a cockroach in "Ode to the Lesser and Greater Cockroach" (29-30). There is a clarity (and shock value) in metaphors like this or the one of "death" for "breath" in "Halitosis."
Similes seem more pliable and flexible (and, therefore, less shocking) than metaphors; after all, Davidson's argument goes, everything is "like" something else. This flexibility plays out in various ways in Rips's poems. In "Halitosis," the simile suggests one of many possible meanings of breath as death; and the remainder of this poem expands on this one meaning with metaphors: "I tasted blue-and gray-capped / bodies ..." (lines 4-5). In the cockroach ode, similes are also used in another way. As a result of their flexibility, similes do not fix meaning but explore meanings; here, they suggest what a cockroach could possibly be like: "... like a fat grape of despair, / like a gaping mouth of nothingness, / like the insides of the drainpipes."
The poems in this collection span the full range of poetic experience from the personal and quirky...