Nico Vassilakis Is Drawn by Disparate Magnets
by Nico Vassilakis
(BlazeVOX Books, $16)
Local poet Nico Vassilakis has lately been working primarily with what he calls visual poetry. You can find much of it on YouTube, and it's less a work of grammar and words than an experiment with typography. This work can be enjoyable but maddening for a book critic—it's hard to look at a mass of letters repeated over and over until the page is black and figure out where to gain critical purchase, no matter how striking the image may be.
Disparate Magnets marks a return to more conventionally formed poetry for Vassilakis. There are stanzas (and sometimes even paragraphs) here. But it's just a trap: He still fussily works at the words, shoving them together and seeing what they do to each other when placed in close proximity. It's better to circumvent the poetry-book/poet line of thinking and instead consider Magnets to be a lab and Vassilakis a scientist.
In the middle of a moody poem titled "The Fog Line," he writes:
You attend to change
To parts that are changing
Moving back the surface
No notice of activity
Before sound's sound
Before sound intends
"The Fog Line" is possibly the best poem in Magnets: There is the solidity of nature to return to, if Vassilakis's words become too opaque. But even here he's playing with the words—shift and change, down to three very different uses of sound to evoke silence—to see what happens. But there's a lot of good stuff if you're willing to join Vassilakis in his experimentation: He tries his hand at local satire—"What Seattle" wonders about the language of alienation—and, with "Cordially," he sings a lament that feels surprisingly (and pleasantly) melodramatic compared to some of his more recent work. Magnets isn't the kind of poetry book you can pull open at any page and find a pithy line to explain the human condition. You've got to sit with it, stare at it, and try to prize the poems apart to see what's inside of them. It's some of Vassilakis's best work to date.