Review: The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems by Simon Perchik (Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library, 2020)

A Review by P.H. Higgins

It is a bit strange reviewing art that explicitly draws upon another work, particularly when unfamiliar with the material that serves as inspiration. Is the experience of reading these poems changed if one has or has not viewed the images from Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, which they draw on? Most certainly, the experience changes, but is it fair to say that viewing the photographs should be the original experience or precondition for viewing these poems? Reading through page after page, I found myself happy to know that I was not exposed to the photographs before reading. The poems—each one titled simply a number from 1 to 184—are not afraid to utilize a wide range of imagery familiar to poets and poetry readers. The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems abounds with stones, waves, night skies, and dirt, but as a collection, the work stands out for its illumination of scenes, each bearing its own voice while simultaneously building a voice that permeates the entire collection.

Each poem in The Reflection in a Glass Eye Poems is composed of three to six three-line stanzas. The structure adds presence and force to each moment; the descriptions are concrete—there is hardly any outright use of internal reflection or subjective feeling. These poems do not resort to interior descriptions of sadness, happiness, or loneliness but rely on specific images, objects, and actions that evoke a picture without a picture. While foregrounding imagery, the poems still retain a measure of distance through the language—they drop the reader into the midst of things, where things familiar become strange. 

To say that there is an uncertainty or evasiveness in these poems is not to insult Perchik by suggesting the writing relies upon vagueries. It is a remarkable feat of keeping the reader uncertain of their own place within these (semi-)ekphrastic poems. Second-person singular is common throughout: “You.” Is it I, the reader? The photographer of the original photograph? A subject within the photo that we do not have before us in these words? Through poetry,this collection raises—in an original form—classic questions of imagery and photography: what is the relationship between the one who creates an image, the subject captured in an image, and the audience who see the image? Does imagery capture a context or evade it? Does a photograph preserve the past or is it simply an object of the present? Here, precisely where the image is re-constructed without the visual object, Perchik respects each scene given by a photograph while distancing the reader from that photograph. It is a cliche to praise poetry by appealing to paradox, but this work does justice to the paradox of producing images through words, pulling the reader into precise details that hint at the elusive context that no poem—or photograph—can perhaps never fully satisfy.

These poems may not be particularly suited for the reader who seeks simple categories and subjects: love poems, nature poems, and so forth. At the same time, this book is refreshingly straightforward with its language. These writings do not rely on long, winding descriptions or excessive wordplay. It is evasive, but not dismissive, of its subjects or its reader; nor does it suggest itself as some puzzle, to which given photography would be a “key.” Reflections, therefore, is rewarding on two fronts: on the one hand, it avoids retreating into abstractions without imagery or content; on the other hand, it retains an elusive ambiguity that is rewarding to read multiple times. It is neither so detached that one is uncertain if there is any content at all, nor is it so specific that the reader feels they are being spoon-fed the common “poetic” themes that have become the parlance of Instagram accounts and New York Times Bestsellers alike. Perhaps there is a paradox in how unsatisfactory poetry can be when it fails to produce answers, though that dissatisfaction also draws the reader back to the text. This review cannot speak to those who seek out the original collection of snapshots to cross-reference and compare the text to the photos, but Reflections shows that there is always more to imagery than the image itself. There is something that is not quite captured, like a slightly distorted reflection in the lens of a camera. 

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