Finding Function in Form: John Reinhart’s invert the helix

I first read John Reinhart’s poetry in my inbox. It grabbed me immediately, licking off the page like the flames he described in one piece. It was subsequently published in the magazine I had the joy of editing, Open Thought Vortex. In fact, his work was so good, the publisher and I jumped each time his work rolled our way, struggling to stay in-budget as we reviewed each submission.

You could say I was an immediate fan. And not just of John’s writing. Every interaction we had was warm with compassion. In fact, after I had moved on from OTV, John contacted me to submit work to my Survive Your Story Guest Exchange. You can find his contributions here and here.

Staying kind in the face of potential criticism and rejection is no small feat. As a writer and editor, I’ve been on both sides of the equation plenty. It’s difficult to accept your hard work, the expressions of your interior thoughts/passions/spirit, may be dismissed offhand by some impartial observer. And while I didn’t have a lot of experience turning John’s work away (although, as I said, I couldn’t always say yes to every piece), I felt safe doing so.

Which is why I enthusiastically agreed to review his new book of poetry, invert the helix, in return for a copy. I knew I could go about it honestly. Honesty in and about art is art’s purpose, in my opinion. Honesty happens in the heart. When our hearts are touched, we are open, if only for a moment. And that opening allows for shift. For growth. For change. This is why literature is banned and burned, both acts important to keep in mind when reading the work of a man who defines himself as an “arsonist by trade.”

Poetry as discovery and recovery

The first poem, “you’ll find”, sets the stage for a sensory adventure. It is the image of a burnt out cigarrette carton with the content of the poem on a scrap of paper inside. The message? Poetry is not created or owned, it exists everywhere in all forms, especially the unexpected places. And just as form can imply function, function can imply form and the word wheel turns round and round.

This collection is a look at the theory of word art. Reinhart’s poems are arranged to swing you back and forth between laughter and darkness. Any good collection will offset tragedy with relief, but invert the helix brings readers beyond the customary arc; it combines found and manipulated visual imagery to create a multi-sensory reading which appeals beyond the page.

Both in tone and in layout, this book leads the reader through discovery–be it of what poetry is or a tack-sharp description of some mundane truth (“the muted sounds of/ a clock ticking/ away in/ my chest” from “tick tick tick”), resulting emotional breakdown, and recovery.

Poetry’s necessary (lack of) complication

Many writers I’ve worked with have expressed that poetry appeals to them because it lacks all the rules the other genres of writing insist on. I always smile to hear this. I find poetry confounding to write because it is about so much more than words.

Poetry talks to itself, announces itself, explains itself and complicates itself when done well. This doesn’t mean it needs to be hard to read or understand. In fact, the best poetry is that which can be read and enjoyed on any of these levels, but that the reader can come back to again and again for rediscovery.

A book of poetry should also work this way. The collection feeds back in on itself, each piece building into the whole, much like a musical album or chapters in a novel. Together, each section tells a story. Puzzle pieces make a picture.

This does not have to be complicated. Poetry can speak to everyone. In this case, it does. Reinhart chooses to approach life philosophy with humor. In “centipedes learning to tie shoes”, he writes, “pigeons speaking in rhyme/ starfish doing origami/ humanity understanding what it means to be human.”

Prior to the final line, the actions described are absurd. We know starfish do not–cannot–practice origami. But we come to the final phrase and wonder at our purpose, our own absurdity and just what does it really mean to be human.

And then we follow this up with a laugh about being a distracted, hormonal teen during the apocalypse in “ApocalypseFails”.

Form as illumination

It is more than a humorous break which allows us to recover from potentially dark, obsessive thoughts. Throughout invert the helix, illumination is the path to recovery. I mean this as a dual word play. Illumination in the sense of shedding light, but also in the sense of illustration. Surely, you’ve read a picture book. invert the helix illustrates itself through form.

Reinhart achieves form through the physical shape of his poems, often choosing to lay them out in a slightly assymetrical mirror (which allows for multiple reading possibilities), repeating shape in a series of of pieces with meanings that build off of or play into one another, or by using the image of a found poem which includes the negative space of blacked out words that were not found as part of the piece.

“refuse” is laid out in a circle. It’s shape indicates the cycle of life. “Dark Light” is laid out in a 3×5 grid broken across two pages, allowing readers to jump from box to box and make a game of reading it again and again in any order. “takeoff and landing gear” uses the fracturing of one word (spaceships) to convey both motion and meaning. And there is color in this book.

All of which is enticing on its own, but the best parts of this collection are the parts you need a break from.

A good turn of phrase

What I’m talking about are those moments in a poem when the moment conveyed is so real you have to physically step back.

In “Baggage”, the female protagonist is:

She dropped her
apprehension into an old coffee
cup [. . .]

“Day with an English Major” begins, “English 101/ Anguish 101/ Fish and Chips.”

And haven’t we all felt so unimportant that “your name reminds/the silence of nothing”?

Of these moments there are plenty, both drawing us further into the collection and forcing us out to think more deeply about what is and is not being said. What should or shouldn’t be said. How seriously should we take ourselves?

Art creates change without pomposity

invert the helix challenges without ever committing the crime of screaming ego. Reinhart is creating art. His art provokes thought. Thought provokes change. But there is no demand here. No expectation. There is simply the hope that you will enjoy exploring life, poetry and form with the writer. And space. Starry, moon-in-the-sky space. Why stay grounded?

Read it, teach it

I’ve taught several poetry collections over the years. I’d like to teach this one. Specifically because I don’t pretend to understand every choice the artist made in putting this collection together. The inclusion of colors, for one, has had me stumped for days. I know this will be a great read with a group, especially for beginning writers who are just learning about form. Perhaps who are afraid to push boundaries or who have not yet learned to sharpen their verbs.

This is a collection worth the time.

If you are as intrigued as I am, you can order your copy of invert the helix from Pski’s Porch on Amazon today.

You can also find more from the author, John Reinhart, by following him on Facebook, Twitter and Patreon.

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

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