In Review

Ears by Jared Stanley. Nightboat Books, 2017.

cover of Ears

Reviewed November 1, 2017 by Sam Lohmann.

Jared Stanley’s new book, Ears, is a manifesto of interdependence and susceptibility, a theory of the senses, and a deliberate sequence of jokes about lyric address. Actually, it’s a book of poems about daily life, listening and looking, among friends. Among its friends the book counts not only the reader but also

The owl talk, the commerce with the dead,

With the resolutely inhuman,

The creatures and stones, and our dead friend,

That sum of a boy who shadowed us

As we skirted the city, considering

His ears, and ours, made for details,

That he must still hear the music and hawks in his death,

Hear the yogurt falling like snot on my zipper. (“Herm,” p. 19)

The poet has recently moved from the Bay Area to the Nevada desert, and the book, like Stanley’s previous book The Weeds, sets up a constant interplay between these locations. But while The Weeds drew its intensity from a solitary speaker obsessively investigating and sometimes ventriloquizing his nonhuman surroundings, Ears (as the title suggests) is always socially situated, negotiating a path among human and nonhuman neighbors. Maybe for this reason the poems are more circuitous, the speaker more persistently, often hilariously, self-conscious. The last line of the passage quoted above gives one of the book’s signature moves, a deflationary redirection of attention to the speaker’s absurd, awkward body and its tendency to get in the way of whatever mystical transactions the poem seemed ready to set up: dew saturates the cuffs of his pajama pants, feathers leak from his coat, or “My eye starts to twitch / Like unsolicited advice” (“Abundance,” p. 41).

If The Weeds was a dream of the weirdo as solitary wanderer, finally a ghost done in by the desert, Ears brings the weirdo back to the flesh and to the responsibilities and inconveniences of community. “Being a weirdo is expensive” (“Pauses,” p. 81). The book’s clearest explication of the social role of the weirdo is the poem “Legs,” an homage to Barbara Shawcroft’s sculpture of the same name:

Foremost among the

attachments that emerge from afternoon

fogs, the stateliness & antique weirdo-hood of that ground I love

[. . .]

a weirdly inert yet intricate pile

of DuPont-made textile three stories tall

affixed by a large metal brace to a wall

at the east end of the Embarcadero BART station (p. 48)

The sculpture, with its decades of dust and soot, stands for

an old idea

of the City that decided Legs

was a good idea (p. 51)

So a description of the sculpture becomes an elegy for the old occult San Francisco of “coy fabulism / and the ear hair of agèd shopkeepers,” (p. 52) and

the loose confederation of symbolism, floppy hats and

strings of beads hanging from

the low branches of the cypress trees

in the Polo Fields. (p. 47)

If the weirdo is a nomad carrying obsolete messages from his weirdo city, long since demolished by the forces of capital, the weirdo’s wanderings are no less part of a social textile, a web of interdependence “carrying on / Past our fantasies of destruction” (“Abundance” p. 38). Or

These refuges among the weird trees

And confusing whistling reveal measures,

Emotions that balance and then are

Declarations of an imbalance

[. . .]

Is the form of a marsupial an argument?

I wish there was a name for it when

Everyone forgets their own dependence. (pp. 38-39)

From this stance of susceptible wandering, vulnerability, dependence and interpenetration, Stanley evolves an ethics of the senses, opposing the “good, untimely” openness of the ears to the determined willfulness of the eyes:

even determined

people are subject

to the listening

they can’t exclude. (“The Listening,” p. 57)

The ears are an “organ of fate,” and with their “weird inflorescing” they “practice the unseen”:

A tiny scavenger

bird squawks and

an ear just can’t

hide the suggestion

the hairs try to

pick out in its cry (“The Listening,” p. 56)

Where the eyes see “that M&M ground / into a square of plastic carpet” (“Public Poem in Three Parts, p. 56) the ears find “something pentatonic stuck in the dirty / carpet, some felicity and surprise,” along with “unexplored harmonies culled from mistakes in rehearsal” (“Death of a Musician, p. 85).

These thoughts about the senses come to a focus, not quite an argument, in a long skinny unparaphraseable poem called “The Listening.” One of the poem’s few polemical areas admonishes


friends, people

who say things like

“all society’s

problems started

with the Walkman”

—even if you’re

that kind of mirror-

hearer and demi-

moron and you

put your ideas

on your head like

a helmet of


you’re still of a piece

with the unshielded.

Sorry. (p. 74)

Okay, I’ll try not to be a mirror-hearer, but if I understand right it’s that unshieldedness that keeps listening closer to hearing than looking can ever come to seeing.

The book’s few surreal passages are fantasies of disciplining or destroying the eyes, au Chien Andalou almost. In “From the Sea Ranch,” sleepwalking lovers pluck out their eyeballs and drop them into coffee cups; in “Abundance,” the speaker’s eyes are invaded by swarming ants and copper deposits. But “The Listening” works a gentler discipline, as if to teach all the senses to follow the ears’ unshieldedness. In a virtuoso passage (hard to say whether the virtuosity belongs to the poet or to fate), listening yields to vision running unguardedly over what’s in the room—

the Cleopatra

coffee mug

the hard rice stuck

to last night’s placemat

—only to light on an instance of extrahuman sensing, an illustration of

the Ampullae

of Lorenzini,

the sharks’ organ

for perceiving


and slight muscle

movement, for


a shark to the

magnetic field

of the earth. (pp. 62-63)

The poem’s occasions are too intricate and weird to summarize. Like the book as a whole, “The Listening” casts a spell (“I’m pretty sure I’m a sorcerer,” Stanley says elsewhere) to bring a real world into view and into conversation: writer and reader, dead or alive, with our embarrassing bodies; the imagined sharks


pulses from the hearts

of their prey for

sixty-five million


ears, eyes and fingers in the desert wind; greasewood and shadscale; the desert’s inhabitants and its itinerant “nobody,” along with the persons and objects of a beloved messy household:

when you hang towels

and bras from doorknobs

( themselves refractive,

cheap crystals) the straps

and corners make

a music of clicks

when the window

is thrown open

onto a full–loving

arid wind… (pp. 68-69)

The poems' open, flexible and generous attention to such music—along with some weird luck—keeps them responsive and responsible to the particularity of places and (not always human) persons. An unguarded equanimity keeps the poet equal to the helpless fact of the senses themselves. A reader, once unable to unhear these improvisations on clicks and wind, may have no choice but to follow the direction they give, wayward and roundabout as it tends to be. Where you end up is another question.

* * *

Sam Lohmann works as an academic librarian near Portland, Oregon. His poetry books include Stand on this picnic bench and look north (Publication Studio, 2011), Unless As Stone Is (eth press, 2014), and Day Use Area (Couch Press, 2014). He is co-organizer of Portland’s long-running Spare Room reading series.