Tracer by Richard Greenfield

by The Editors

Tracer, Greenfield's second collection, is a fascinating mix between the austere and the lyrically lush. Greenfield's political and philosophical inquiries resist allowing the reader to sit comfortably, nor do they exempt the speaker from culpability. Seeing terror lurking behind every suburban rose bush, his anxiety, however, is not one that asks us to cower. Rather, we are strengthened by beauty, by the lovely alterity that Greenfield reveals in gorgeously chosen verbs and judicious stanzaic arrangement.


With nothing by chance or on the fly, Greenfield's precision lends both structure to his poems and a tone of cautiousness throughout the book. Consider the first lines of “Speaking For,” the opening poem:

Open a window:

a colony of winged ants has stained their flightless self to my wall, collective stake

without the propagating sky spreading in my basement;


What might be a gesture towards embracing the world, “Open a window,” is immediately turned inwards to “my wall,” where living beings are “stained,” and then deeper to “my basement.” Nature is controlled; the speaker is controlled. That caution inherent to Greenfield's style perfectly matches the tension he explores between a contemporary life filled with political mashings and terror, and the sense of beauty that might act as a salve or even save us from buckling under pressure:


Terror has its imitations

I go out and cut the flowers

this is an arrangement, too—


As the poems couple pastoral imagery with a landscaped suburbia in a strange anticipation for the under-threat of attack or collapse, Greenfield calls for something “new”—a revised aesthetic that appreciates the cohabitation of public and private thought.


These poems are overtly political, but not overt in their message at all. In poems like “Recovery Effort” and “Rapier/Ravine,” the disasters are implied rather than referred to specifically. They have yet to occur, but we are sure they will. Greenfield’s method calls for responsibility on the micro and-macro-levels, a trope that engages the timeless and universal sense of the disaster. In the excellent poem, “Weapon Alpha,” which operates as a kind of “Dialogue Between Self and Soul,” he writes:

This was not a place; this was an event:

I was measured by it—


As we, individually and as a collective, are defined by specific events, we cannot afford to think of them as one single “place.” They exist in a residuum and their influence will stretch over time.


We are taken through this collection by an observer, sometimes astounded, sometimes melancholic, nearly always solitary. The speaker will address or identify with a collective of people, but not with any individual beloved or friend. That solitude is also an observed collateral damage of a world view:

I want to want company again;

The victim tells a story and they listen,

they applaud; it sounds like a kind of

loneliness, or a cavern, or an unworked funerary slab

denied by the memoirist for the sake of his art;


Our hunger to know the suffering of others, to grasp at empathy, can only fall short as any art form falls short of truly capturing its subject with a “headlock of pity.” The spacing on the page, the employment of monostichs, enables the echoing space of finality to plead, “interrupt me.”


The insistent gestures—as it takes two to headlock—toward culpability risks losing the familiar and foreign senses for the sake of interrogating the residual effects, the trace, to locate where the terror began. Because if we understand the path of the bullet, we don’t need to understand the hysterics of where it will land. Greenfield's work, however, for all its caution and anxiety, is not doom-and-gloom, centering only on the abstract universal. He indicts the trajectory, the course, of our network, and our actions within that matrix cannot be denied nor excused:


We can't tell ourselves

from those whose loss is actual;



Tracer, Richard Greenfield