Reviewed by Peter Mladinic
When Correlation is Causation
by Heikki Huotari
Better Than Starbucks Publications
ISBN: 9781737621935, Nov 2021, $15usd, paperback, 105 pages
In poetry, language moves through a pattern, and the basic organizing unit is the line. In Huotari’s book it’s the sentence. It would be limiting to call these prose poems or even language poems; they eschew labels. Better to think of them as ventures in language, in reality, in the probable, and the possible. To achieve a pattern, the poet uses a number of devices. “To the horseless carriage I say get a horse.” The book begins. The horseless carriage is an early automobile. Paradox, as well as humor, lies in the repetition of “horse.” Also, the sentence is a revitalization of the cliché “get a horse.” This first poem in the collection ends with this sentence:
As fear is focused barely satiated tastebuds blossom and as sunburn and consumption of ice cream are correlated correlation is causation.
Syntax is key to appreciation. Within this periodic sentence (the main idea at the end) is embedded zeugma, a poetic figure found in numerous poems. Huotari joins things that don’t logically go together. He uses paradox, word play, parody, vocatives, metaphors, similes and other devices, all of which convey his persona’s feelings, and evoke, more so than a mood, a mindset.
“Reality is what most matters.” That sentence is from the last poem. The persona, the I, is central. The persona is similar to both poet and reader, only with an air of omniscience, a, let’s say, humble introspection, in that the I is low key. These poems are all about the world he inhabits, and the universe.
In “Wishes Whispered Once” the I says “I am a side-stand comedian. But often he is dead serious. In “Sleep Start” there is this: “The father of the light bulb had an elephant electrocuted..” This is an allusion to Topsy, an elephant electrocuted at the beginning of the twentieth century. Note the antithesis: the father, the creator is also the destroyer. Animal activists and advocates certainly view this execution as a “blemish” on early progress. Another antithesis appears in “Quid Pro Quo.” “God tells me what to write I write the opposite.” In “When Gravitons Amass” the persona says “As a boy scout my reward is doubled when I help across the street the soul that has no wish to go.” A clash of wills. Opposites on another level appear in “Sousaphone” when he says “I could be a feather or a bowling ball.”
In poetry language moves through a pattern. Several devices the poet uses to make the pattern are repetition as in “In the heart-shaped box are heart-shaped boxes, which may not be exact but it’s a memorable repetition. He uses metaphor: sea of slot machine, ashes become snowflakes, truckloads of irony, vital signs are islands, warts may be wings, lungs are planes, and matadors, metaphors. Along with metaphors, there are similes, such as a checkerboard like a cattle guard. Another device is the apostrophe, where the persona directly addresses an absent person or an entity. In “Let My Great Apes Go” he says, Typhoid Mary,..who’s on n plus first?” The book’s last section is Scenic Overlook. “Scenic Overlook 1” begins “Speak to me through my appreciation, gentle precipice..” Another prominent device is the revitalized cliché. “There are more criteria than I can shake a stick at.” “Wishes Whispered Once” ends with “Will this be on the test of time?” In “Hook And Eye” there is a revitalization of blood is thicker than water, “when ice is thinner than existence.” With the device known as zeugma disparate things are jointed by conjunctions such as “and.” Thus, “gravity is stipulated and a paper of no pins.” Also, “carpenter’s and burglar’s tools,” and “a chest of metals and mild manners.” There is also the oxymoron, a term that unites opposites in “discriminating zealots.” Related to that, the paradox “If I were you I would be me.” And in “Who’s On First,” “God loves me and God loves me not.” Litotes involves negation. “Misleading syllabi are swinging from no chandelier.” “My heart is not a sponge.” “There is no zombie..” “This clandestine meeting never was.” “It’s the anti-miracle: there’s nothing in this jar” and “With no physical phenomenon am I at war.” The last two quotes are from “Acceptance.” In “Two Science Daily Spin-offs,” in which robots have nightmares, there’s the litotes “This abyss was made for me not me and you.”
Abyss denotes dreariness, but the language in these poems is wonderful stuff. Christopher Howell states, speaking of Heikki Huotari at the back of the book says “ His work is absolute proof that Surrealism is not dead.” “Siri recommends a lane change and becomes increasingly insistent” is funny. So is “The bible study group has commandeered the corner coffee shop so may the celebration of the senses and the flesh commence.” Word play is significant in these poems. “By bioluminescing, almost-doctors of philosophy will see you now.” “I’m not an actor but I doctor one.” “I jump from joy..” “As some synesthetes put pigs on lipstick..” “Bones will be bones,” “crux to bear,” and the poem title “It’s The Thought That Discounts” –evoke a feeling of freedom, a mindset of the probable and the possible.
Another device, one that uses repetition with variation, is chiasmus. At the end of “How The Eldorado Got Its Tailfins” the persona asks “Are those eyes like lights or are those lights like eyes?” At the end of “Reciprocal” he declares “What I feel for Pinocchio Pinocchio can not but
feel for me.” “The words I have a way with will have preciously had a way with me.” That sentence appears in “Hook And Eye,” which concludes with a question: “What’s the probability that we’ll devise an afterlife we can life with?” Many of these sentences are just irresistible. They take you in, he takes you in, reader.
Who is he? Not the poet, but the speaker in the poems? Like the poet he is a person, with all the depth of a person. “On an eventual horizon if that mass is critical of me I may not take it well.” Concerned about his life, he is concerned about others. He shows a consciousness of class, race, gender. He “lives in the real world.” In “That Palm Tree Is a Cell Phone Tower” there is “Another active-shooter drill.” In “Reciprocal,” “Blessed are the stopped and frisked for they shall finally know their rights.” He personifies laughter as having an afternoon, and cicadas can be jealous, just as octopuses can listen to our dreams. In “The Law of Large Numbers” he says “when they learn to hope like humans..” Just as there is objectivity in his words antipodes, isobars, exigency, there’s subjectivity as well, a mindset of head and heart. “If I were you I would be me.”
Heikki Huotari has given readers a book of originality and vitality. A lesser title for this review would be “Not Just Another Pretty Language Poet.” A language poet? Well, yes, a poet, certainly, in a poem in which a reader may “drive through an utterance.” A language poem, a poem, but the label feels limiting, while the poems do not. “The horseless carriages are superseded by the driverless” seems prophetic. What about the present? It includes the probable. Consider the image in “Syllogism 5.” “I would have been a Buddhist but for conscious sweeping or have had an ID on a lanyard in a plastic sleeve.” The image says it all, the poems “speak for themselves.” Read When Correlation is Causation. You’ll be delighted, challenged, rewarded.
About the reviewer: Peter Mladinic’s poems have recently appeared in Divot, Mad Swirl, Bluepepper, Off Course and other literary journals. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, USA.