Images of almost unnamable violence are given open procession in Michael Schmeltzer’s Empire of Surrender. Execution, bloody rubble, torturers, “fear like rotten milk”, “blood like a divination” spark in quick succession to introduce the insistence in Schmeltzer’s voice to inscribe a poetically organized witnessing of war, horror, trauma—how darkness is magnified when “a white horse/drenched in oil/ is set on fire”.

Schmeltzer likes couplets and the binary tension their juxtaposition invites, but the formal
progression of the poems can be considered both free and fixed. Wartime letters, blackened signatures, and white spaces on the page make appearances as voices and contexts illuminating the soft rage that characterizes the collection’s opening tone.

Fascination in the view of various forms of depravity and violence motivates Schmeltzer’s
work, as if relentless depiction of the crosshair of traumatic experience and reflective imagination would summon some finally responsive god. Empire of Surrender traces, both implicitly and explicitly, an intriguing contemplation of (a)theism and divine justice, or skepticism. “Joy Apotheosis” is not accidentally the closing poem, it serves as a kind of relief to the described horror. I leave the piece with concerning questions about humanity, but also an appreciation for the capacity to observe complexity, and perhaps even push “a pin/ back into a grenade”—though the piece does not invite hope. The absence of place names is also notable.

 

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