Madison poet Nick Lantz's debut collection, We Don't Know We Don't Know, released last month, is a romp through references to Donald Rumsfeld, old wives' tales, Pliny the Elder, little-known facts and dusty paintings. It's a sharp group of poems that leaves the reader wondering: What, really, do we know, and what, really, do we not know? (Another Lantz collection, The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House, came out last week.)
Flipping through We Don't Know We Don't Know for the first time, I noticed lots of blank spaces mid-line, as if words had been deleted. At first the spaces perplexed me. But on my second reading, it dawned on me: Lantz treats a space the way he would treat a word. I soon adjusted to the white places in the same way a reader learns to follow line breaks or indentations. In the end, it's the white spaces that fascinate me most. What do we miss in the spaces between words?
And what happens when words are hidden behind black ink? In Will There Be More Than One "Questioner"?, words are actually blacked out, as if by a Sharpie, leaving just enough to tease the reader. The poem is a list of questions, with the title question being taken from the 1983 CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. The final query sums the rest up: "Will there be a witness to all we have said and done?"
In Ancient Theories, the speaker wonders how we can understand small things when we can't explain the big ones: "In the Andes, a lake disappears overnight, sucked / through cracks in the earth. / How can I explain / the sunlight stippling your face in the early morning?"
We Don't Know We Don't Know asks a lot of questions, and these questions make for good poetry - they put the reader in motion, actively considering what's been asked. I'm not sure there are any clear answers, and Lantz's poems are immensely satisfying nonetheless. His imagery startles and amazes - bodies of honeybees become "discarded coins" and a parking lot "fills and empties like a lung" - and the questions the reader is left with are intoxicating. Here's one last one: "What / drives us out with a broom / each morning to knock / the fangs of ice from the eaves of our lover's house?"