There Goes the Neighborhood: A Review of Benjamin Niespodziany’s No Farther Than the End of the Street
In The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard draws a connection between the solitude of human consciousness and the solace of intimate spaces. He proposes that these intimate spaces—the home being the prime example—provide ideal conditions for daydreaming, transporting us from our immediate surroundings to “a world that bears the mark of infinity.”
This concept of “immensity in the intimate” returned to me as I read Benjamin Niespodziany’s No Farther Than the End of the Street, a collection of prose poems that don’t stray beyond a single neighborhood block, showing how our minds can be liberated even as our bodies are confined.
These poems are brief yet bold, their force incommensurate with their size. While each is sturdy enough to stand on its own, it is through their accrual and the reoccurrence of certain themes and motifs that the block becomes fully fledged.
What should be impossible according to the dictates of logic and reason does not seem at all out of place here, as Niespodziany smuggles the surreality of a dream into our waking life, slyly and subtly undermining any certainty about our accepted reality.
By the end of the block, you will encounter such eccentricities as a neighbor with a face of dying flowers, a doll that looks like an emergency landing, an angel whose wings are a slapdashery of landfill scraps, and volcanoes made out of swamp products and ketchup packets. A closer look reveals latent bounty: a spoonable church camouflaged in a bowl of oatmeal, a matryoshka picnic basket preserving “a tiny lunch that never rots like the world it waits to leave,” and, in what John Madden certainly would have appreciated, a safe inside a turkey inside a safe.
Any attempt to untangle the familiar from the fantastical would only diminish this pleasantly disorienting effect. And, given these circumstances, where better to look for guidance than a piano that has fallen from the clouds?
“We watched the piano no longer in the sky act natural in its new environment. We tried to do the same.”
Just as the piano provides a “church service without a wordy sermon,” so too does Niespodziany fold existential insights into his palm-sized poems, his command of scale is demonstrated in the deftness with which he maneuvers between the quiet intimacies of the individual to instances of our shared humanity.
Though never explicitly invoked, the pandemic asserts its presence. Major life events are celebrated in minor key: a destination wedding is relocated to the basement, funerals are held in adjacent backyards. Masks are worn, masks fall off. Relationships are paused and reunions don’t always end with a happily ever after:
“I was alone. You were alone. We held hands.”
With this simple gesture, Niespodziany reminds us that as interconnected as humanity is, there will always be an unresolvable distance between ourselves and others, that proximity is not synonymous with intimacy. Nowhere is this more brutally evident than in our pandemic-accelerated retreat into digital life, presented in a series of poems as increasingly audacious attempts at virality, one of which incorporates an aquarium (a blunt metaphor for the voyeuristic thrill of social media, where bluntness itself is a virtue).
Meanwhile, our connection to the environment has assumed more immediacy, as well as provided ample fodder for memefication. On the block, nature is healing, the hyperspeed of modernity has slackened to the timelessness of a daydream, and the geometric coherence of the city grid has surrendered to verdant lawlessness. Ferns, vines, and all manner of critters ravish the fallen piano. When it rains, it pours Clydesdales. A wished-for whale wails in a wishing well. (Say that five times fast.)
Here, as throughout the book, Niespodziany performs an applaudable balancing act between comic adventure and cosmic misfortune, supersizing the absurdity (a cow so tall that its head sticks out of the water “like a telescope hoping for stars”) before landing an emotional wallop (“The water rises as we pass cow head island and everything breaks my heart”).
The theme of our essential loneliness is revisited in the final poem, “You All Along,” which concludes on a bittersweet, yet ultimately hopeful note:
“You’re the only one in the crowd, writing on a napkin how to sound out my name. Our name. There’s a Z somewhere in the middle. It’s a trip.”
For more about the book: https://okaydonkeymag.bigcartel.com/product/no-farther-than-the-end-of-the-street
Robyn Schindeldecker is a Minneapolis writer whose work has appeared in Entropy, Midway Journal, Typehouse, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @whyrobynwhy.