Elephant Trapped in a Swallow: John Gosslee’s “Blitzkrieg” and Chaucer’s Anagogical Poetics

Blitzkrieg, John Gosslee’s latest poetry collection, recently released by Rain Mountain Press, defined by the poet himself as “a surprise artistic assault by massed electronic, air, sea and ground forces under close coordination” is structured in an unusual way.

After the epigram (“Father, deliver me / I am a pelican / that has swallowed a fish / being reeled in by the fisherman), I read the table of contents, then embarked on my one-sitting read. I found the poems at the beginning of the collection to be straightforward. They can be characterized by possessing concisely rendered images, clarity of insight, descriptions of space and place, musing on time and freedom, human volition and statements about the self’s relation to the universe. They were elusively quaint, yet also absolutely raw and rugged. I felt transported and felt ready for more. One of my favorite poems, entitled “I Stop Like an Axe Flung into a Tree,” has a hellfire immediacy, yet gripping imagery: “I stop like an axe flung into a tree / my hand on the deer’s neck rests / its antlers point at the constellations.”

As I continued to read, I kept ruminating on the purpose of the title and its relational correspondence to the collection as a whole. I understood he conceived the book as an artistic assault, but was it an artistic assault that was really taking place? What war was this? A personal war (poet against himself) or a poetic war, wherein the work as such illuminates the relationship between its forms and functions—one that expresses an aporia, or gap, between a poem’s content and its meaning—leaving an active (clearly not passive) reader to meditate on Gosslee’s subtext?

I conceded that Gosslee, as I read even further, loves blunt, semi-mystical verses, which forge a vibration empirically upon the map of one’s mind, yet that the verses remained songs at the same time. Take, for example, the poem “The Habit,” a brief sketch of a shadowy agency’s imbibing of a handful of pills. I read the poem multiple times, though kept re-reading the final line: “the glass slams like a gavel on the table.” The line was perfect in structure and content. The anagogical conflation between “the glass” (a container, for water, élan vital, mobilized to assist a person in swallowing pills) with “a gavel” slamming “down on the table” connotes self-judgment, a pathos of misconstrued vitality. I thought about Chaucer. This was the turning point.

I discovered there was a precision and strict method in the how Gosslee ascertained the images that he chooses. Much more was taking place in Blitzkrieg than it appeared. The work was still an artistic assault, I agreed, but I kept asking myself what impetus drove or was behind Gosslee’s assault? There was a subtle though present, mystical component to the work. Thus, I was reminded of Chaucer’s poetics in The Canterbury Tales, which was not “simply” centered about allegory, as some believe, but in the chasm in between then narratological aspects and anagogical forces in the poetic content.

I suspected the work was about capturing the waning, fleeting perception of the soul—even a secular idea of a soul—and that Gosslee’s artistic assault set out to stir or to stop us to consider what that soul’s existence might mean.

Now, I am not arguing for some dubious and direct link between Gosslee and Chaucer, with Chaucer writing lines, such as, in The Merchant’s Tale, “Mariage is a ful greet sacrament. / he which that that no wyf, I holde hym shent; / He lyveth helpless and al desolate.” Nevertheless, I believe the collection’s structure, after the “surprise artistic assault by massed electronic, air, sea and ground forces under close coordination” (the fourteen straightforward poems), alters drastically soon after those poems are finished.

Suddenly, there is a prose epilogue following the first fourteen poems, a new section entitled “Migration of Portrait of an Inner Life.” I was not surprised he was going to extrapolate: it reminded me of the soul’s journey in Chaucer. Gosslee enters non-fiction for pages and pages, explaining the process through which “Migration of Portrait of an Inner Life,” was penned, edited, submitted and accepted by the literary community as such.

In that regard, I only bring up Chaucer—who was influenced by Boethius, the Roman philosopher who wrote about Divine Providence and Fate in The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting trial and execution—because Gosslee’s collection as a whole is a slyly proverbial, if not a meditative work on the nature of things unnoticed, or as of things yet unseen. He is interested in things inside things. One can safely conjecture that what Gosslee was writing, in part, is about that which animates us and gives us life.

The second section of Blitzkrieg, entitled “Portrait of an Inner Life,” is comprised of three pieces and is a departure, in part, from the initial “artistic assault” of the first fourteen poems. The first piece of the section, “Portrait of an Inner Life (edited version), was first published in Rattle #37 and was used for criticism by editor Timothy Green, poet Morri Creech and translator and poet Steven Komarnyckyj. Therein, Gosslee writes about how he came to construct the poem “Portrait of an Inner Life,” which earned him critical acclaim, and which he himself considers his ‘breakthrough poem.’ He summarizes his aesthetic decisions in its composition; indeed, it is compelling to watch the poet attempt to objectively critique his own work while I myself was critiquing it as an outside observer: in some senses, a double entendre was produced. The reader gains direct insight into Gosslee’s aesthetics; Gosslee is given the floor to explain what he did and how he did it, not so much in its construction in actuality, but in its stages of renewal, or altered manifestations under editorial control, which poses a set questions that the reader must also consider. If the first section is primarily poetry, the second section is mainly about his “breakthrough poem,” which can be read in three distinct manifestations. The third section, then, is a repetition of the same core poem, though it includes illustrations, which might have been drawn to give reader a visual signifier about every line in the poem, “Portrait of an Inner Life.”

Gosslee describes some of the emotions he experienced as he composed the piece and describes how he completed it and then began the process of submitting to Other Poetry, where he, perhaps, incidentally enough, received an auto-reply from the editor, stating that he was out of town. Gosslee then explains how he operates behind the scenes, that is, on the clerical side of writing poetry—the submission side, the side where packages are submitted to places like “The Southern Festival of the Book,” where he was allotted time to read the title poem of this second part of the collection.  “Portrait of an Inner Life” (edited) is short:

a mansion

inside a hovel

an elephant

trapped in a  swallow

the claw at the end

of a roar

a knob

without a door

I found the poem concise, mature and foreboding at the same time, as it contains a series of relationships between four two-part assemblages, or nexuses, into an action or an image; they are, however, mechanized through a distinct retroactive dialectic inferred only by the reader.

I am convinced that Gosslee is as interested in notions and/or ideas as much as he was in the process of poetic creation itself; hence, the inclusion for the non-fiction in the second section. Gosslee does not shy away from “artistic assaults.” With a lengthy essay, “Portrait of an Inner Life,” at the center of Blitzkrieg, he appears to attempt to bind himself up in epigensis of his own creation, which goes far back into the literary tradition on one hand yet, on the other, is fresh, and is as much for our contemporary times as we have the attentive vigor to understand.

Subsequently, I believe Gosslee explores the relationship between structure and function. In the field of poetic anatomy, the structure of a poem, or a collection of poems, dictates how that poem or collection functions. Gosslee’s verse is always clear, well-executed, and at times—not to a fault—slightly mystical. I do not mean there is literal magic in his subject matter, but I do believe think he captures certain movements and spatio-temporal relationships that are not obvious, whereby the poet effectively hypnotizes, or rather draws into the reader’s “inner life” towards Gosslee’s own “inner life” in order for them to commune. The intimacy between reader and poet elucidates a powerful statement about our predicament: namely, how we are unable to know one another completely because we are distinct, but through language can establish a new way of taking a vacation, that is, by entering the interior space of the Other.

As Cartesian as Gosslee appears, he is not a poet who simply writes about the self or even identity. He writes about maximal magnitude within tiny spaces and tiny spaces within maximal magnitude. He writes of proportions and causal relationships. He writes of the noumenal realm of unknowable essences, governed by our transcendental apperception. He also manages to do all of this without pretentiousness and pomp. Gosslee, through his work alone, is clearly dedicated and enjoys the processional nature of creating poetry. At times, it is almost as if his poems cause themselves, that there is no poet, which might be a gift to the reader, rather than a hindrance. In this way, it is easier to understand what a poet is saying or suggesting, should we even choose to read his poetry for “meaning,” say, over its “being”, which affirms existence, rather than negates it, which is part of the allure of reading Blitzkrieg as I did, from beginning to end, in one sitting.

In the third section, the illustrations of the collection, aptly drawn by Yumi Sakugawa, accompany other renditions of “Portraits of an Inner Life,” that is, the poem (but the poet’s cut). The visual component—and some might disagree—has a place in the collection, because the work as a whole is not merely about poems. It is about the eclipse of the poem, too, and adheres to presenting negative space—if not the representational assemblages in visual terms so that we can empirically “see” the poem, too. In the last section, for example, there is illustration of a mansion. There is also an illustration of a hovel. There is also an illustration of an elephant trapped in a swallow, and so forth.  Blitzkrieg as a collection contains a series of photographs alongside the same poem, pedaling towards the reader’s full understanding of the matryoshka doll effect of the innovative structure; that is, of Blitzkrieg, the entire enterprise.

We are bombarded enough by images, always-already. Gosslee, however, is practical in the concision of his verse. After I finished and closed the last page of Blitzkrieg, I was left with a series of unanswered questions—and perhaps rightfully so, because they might not have direct answers. One of these questions was: If we, as a species, are, fated to merely occupy interior spaces, sauntering forward with the incisive rancor or dire fragility within the grottos of the human skull, how can we then discern the difference between the world that we do see and the world that we cannot see? Perhaps we require “an artistic assault” to take place in order to be jolted into an understanding of how the external world affects our inner lives.

Must we, through poetry, undergo a kind of “shock therapy” to be less dead and come alive to gather some sense of our existence? Historically, what has poetry been telling us? To enjoy it as its lines turn like a serpent? To help us remember the future? Poetry affirms life and rings in unison with what is inside us and what moves us. Perhaps we do need poetic therapy as prescribed by our great poets—with the intention of healing traumatic spaces and zigzagging cracks within us. Whereas Gosslee defines his process as “an artistic assault,” let it be known how careful and thorough he underscores the size and scope of of poetry’s purpose, while he lifts the veil of the mimetic art and gives us a behind-the-scenes understanding of his own work as we read it.

It is my hope that readers of Blitzkrieg  become less afraid of asking the big questions—while certainly considering how far poetry has come; namely, how it, as a genre, has its own history, has transmigrated and changed over the epochs, centuries, decades, and days. Gosslee’s collection reconsiders our perceptions of proportionality, as well as our notions of space, time, and place. Blitzkrieg cannot lead the reader anywhere else but to ponder the aggravations and “lighting war” of the soul.


Paul RogovPaul Rogov studied comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley and social work at the University of Southern California. His work has appeared in Jumping Blue Gods, Danse Macabre, Exterminating Angel Press, Yareah Magazine, Stepping Stone Magazine, Femicatio Magazine, and Cultural Weekly. The Fallen Years, his debut novella, about a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, was released in October 2011. In 2013, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Rogov emigrated to the U.S. as a political refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1979.


John GossleeYale Review, Quiddity, Gargoyle, and others will publish John Gosslee’s poetry in 2014. He’s the editor of Fjords Review, and his latest testament is www.blitzkrieghq.com.

Published by tmdevos

BIO: T.M. De Vos is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); a 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow; and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Gloom Cupboard. Her work has appeared previously in Embark Literary Journal, MockingHeart Review, Vagabond, Folder Magazine, concīs, Juked, Pacific Review, burntdistrict, HOBART, and the Los Angeles Review. De Vos is the recipient of fellowships from Murphy Writing Seminars, Summer Literary Seminars, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. She recently completed her first novel.

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