Say Anything
Lee Rossi
Plain View Press

Reviewer: Rebecca Patrascu

“Everything fits into everything else,” Lee Rossi tells us in the opening poem of his fifth collection. The idea is handy packaging for a book entitled Say Anything, but it prompts the question: if one might include anything and everything, what does one choose to say?

Rossi’s previous books speak of many things with articulate elegance. His subjects have included autobiography, history, religion, sex, and Buddhism, but whatever the focus, his work is characterized by an overall quality of inquiry. A member of the Northern California Reviewers and a Contributing Editor for the much-loved Poetry Flash, Rossi is an astute, careful reader and writer, and expert at lucid analysis and distillation.

In Say Anything, the poet is again asking questions, but something has changed. As he explains in his introduction, “I found myself in the grip of unresolvable contradictions, whose most frequent mode of expression was oxymoron and paradox. My subject was shifting, from my exterior, historical, biographical reality, to an inner psychological reality … a world of nuance and shadow.”

This subtle inner reality, and the nature of perception and existence, are at the heart of Say Anything. The second section opens with a George Berkeley epigraph (he of the witness-less tree-in-a-forest) and includes other figures from philosophical idealism: “Antimonies” takes its title from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and there are allusions to Arthur Schopenhauer, with “will and idea” in “The Retired Epistemologist,” and to Thomas Aquinas, hearing Kant’s confession in “Apply Topically.” The essence that Rossi explores may be elusive, but his voice is certain. Here is the opening of the persona poem, “Sebastian to His Wounds”:

I love you, little mouths,
portals through which my life passes—
tell them who I am.

Tell the feathered arrows that though they fly
straighter than birds they cannot find
what remains invisible, undying.

Tell the bows that they can bend
like ash trees in a storm or like a crowd
beneath the orator’s words,

yet what remains invisible does not bend.

Rossi is introspective but also canny, injecting wit, even whimsy, into his contemplation. The book’s title poem demonstrates this pensive playfulness:

At first I couldn’t say anything.
I was a bobbin wound with silk

beginning its long migration
through skirt or inseam, hemming

and hawing. I was afraid of truth
and so was given many truths,

all of them huddled
on the leeward side of the cliff.

The poem concludes with lyric self-reflection:

I have found as much of the truth as I can carry,
and even so, it’s too much,

this load of wood, this raven feather,
each step pushing me deeper into the ground.

The cover of Say Anything displays a surreal grayscale scene by photographer Loretta Young-Gautier, whose work transforms familiar landscapes into something strange. Conversely, in the third section of his book, Rossi’s surreal prose makes the strange somehow familiar. While many of the poems in Say Anything are tercets, which provide effectual line breaks and room for breath between stanzas while allowing for a conversational tone, Rossi’s prose pieces require additional narrative elbow room. Some of these vignettes are more absurd than others, but all are entertaining, and can be read as allegory or even puzzles whose pieces allude to other poems in the book. “Close Encounters of Another Kind” is pulp science fiction, racy and fantastic. There are touches of fabulism in pieces like “Instructions to My Teenage Self,” which describes people as partly or wholly wolf or witch. The last piece in this section is especially delightful: a re-imagining of Zen teaching and reincarnation as a video game with multiple levels.

The fourth section of Say Anything delves deeper into personal history: poet as toddler, as teen, as young seminarian, as father. “Horizon and Walls” describes a splitting away from family: “Some wind was pushing // me out to sea and no amount of tacking / could take me back to where I began.” “The Case of the Missing Chicken Pot Pie” shares wry bureaucratic titles applied to the speaker’s father (“Managing Director for Finance and Internal Audit” and “Controller and Chief Legal Counsel”) and mother (“Inventory Control Clerk”).

The next section revisits past haunts and loves, with stops including Berlin, Vienna, Paris, a step class, and a sick bed. Although these might be considered ubi sunt poems, Rossi’s life review has an immediacy and joie de vivre that avoids sentimental nostalgia and arid, detached reflection. Self-recrimination is superseded by compassion and acceptance of one’s foibles and of the almost inevitable self-compromise we experience when drunk or in love. “No Sweat (the Step Reebok Poem)” is an example of this gentle approach:

… You see the futility of it all. And yet I

savored my futility, it was something
only I could do, poised there and
gathering myself for the next step.

Taken as a whole, Say Anything represents an excavation that matches the process described in “Peeling the Onion”: “examining each layer and slice // for whatever makes the onion unique.” In his poem, after stripping everything away in search of an essential core, Rossi turns the metaphor on its side:

Whatever hides beneath
the skin is irrelevant.

You are a seed, surrounded by
fruit, your only hope

to plant yourself in fertile soil.

Say Anything is bookmarked with stand-alone poems. The opening piece describes indiscriminate fecundity, and the closing piece echoes Dante’s Paradiso with a dreamlike transformation of someone who is ultimately:

… enough content
in this wide and luminous
place touched by light
on all sides to move
as one moves whose
only motive is joy

Lee Rossi’s contribution to the literary world is significant, and reviewing an expert reviewer’s collection is daunting. But the charm and quality of Say Anything and the enjoyment it offers make it easy to recommend—especially knowing that there are so many other examples of Rossi’s skill that could be quoted, so much more of the anything and everything to say.

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