Robert Vaughan. Červená Barva Press, $7 chapbook (36p) ISBN: 978-0-9883713-9-2
I read Robert Vaughn's Microtones while sitting halfway up a mountain in Connecticut. At first, this detail seemed insignificant; I read books all the time while sitting along West Rock's trap-rock ridge. (I'm currently unemployed. So.) But, as I read on, I found a possible parallel between my experiences hiking through New England and Vaughn's work. And I’m not just talking about the fact that the cover of Microtones features an empty bench atop a mountain.
My favorite moment on a hike is reaching that first scenic vista. Generally, a good vista comes after some effort and provides a nice panoramic scene where I can look out onto things both familiar and unfamiliar. The ultimate feeling I get, sitting there, looking out over a city or a valley or a rural countryside, is that of both significance and insignificance. I feel insignificant and small because I am sitting on volcanic trap rock that was part of Pangea, whereas I've only been around for thirty years and have still yet to start a career. But, I also feel significant in these moments. There is the wonderful sensation that comes with inhaling the fresh air, with seeing a beautiful, lush and green valley, or watching a red-tailed hawk catch a current or feeling the sun on a cloudless day. When there is that much beauty before me, it's hard not to feel a little hopeful.
This is where the tension lies in Microtones, that battle between the competing (and very human) forces of existentialism and optimism. Take the poem 'Turbidity,' which begins like this:
Holidays are hard:
I'm going to take
a walk, escape the
silence of this house
I was never home,
home on the range
hospital corners are still
"beats me?" (13).
It's a somewhat bleak start--the holidays prove to be difficult because the poem's speaker is isolated in some way, and in fact, always has been. But Vaughn isn't one to drop in some darkness and then hightail it. The poem's final line is this: 'There's something I forgot.' It’s a miniature detail but it injects a small bit of optimism into the piece. The sentence seems to imply that there is still something left. In saying 'There's something I forgot,' as opposed to 'Something has been forgotten,' hope lingers, at least for a little bit, the hope that the ‘something’ may be found.
More than anything else, Microtones is an understated meditation on isolation, which I think comes as a result of that tension between despair and hope. Specifically, mentions of death are met with the idea that death, no matter the circumstance, is somehow the fault of the fallen. This seems like the highest form of isolation:
(from 'When the Time Comes')
"That was awful what happened to him," Mom says, stirring more butter into her mashed potatoes.
"It was his own fault," Dad says as he chews, mouth full of t-bone steak.
I wondered why my
parents kept the photo on
the piano. She'd died over
ten years ago. Died on her
own, by her own stupidity. (24).
It's an intriguing idea to work over, the idea that death is in a person's hands, which seems like the ultimate form of isolation. If death is a direct consequence of something the dead had done, then that implies that the death was a sort of helpless act, one with no recourse. True isolation.
This isn't to say Vaughn's work is without its lighter moments. Indeed, Microtones finds humor in some small, borderline-absurd moments, pitting the microscopic against grander concepts producing hearty chuckles:
(from: ‘Prayer, Protest, Peace’)
I forgot to turn on the oven. Then I turned it on, but forgot to take
it off broil. Then I forgot to turn the oven off.
The day does not lend itself to night.
My mind has flown. It's gone from the everyday.
No one's watching the oven! (32).
Vaughn, if anything, is refreshing in his consistency. Microtones is a balanced and focused work and one that calls for multiple reads. Its true strength lies not necessarily in what's on the page, but in the place where Vaughn’s words and ideas take you. It’s at least worth taking up to a mountain to read and then ponder for awhile. (March 2013)
Purchase Microtones HERE.
Reviewer bio: Jake Goldman is a writer and adjunct professor. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.