A Review of Jeffrey Encke’s MOST WANTED: A gamble in verse
in the form of a deck of cards, 52 cards, 2 jokers
by Alexis Vergalla
I was taught to read in a linear fashion, as most of us are. Letters followed each other in sequence, definitions could be discerned from context, and linear narrative was standard fare. I don’t remember veering away from narrative, but it happened. Still, books were contained by spines. The pages turned in an orderly fashion. There was never an alternative.
Jeffrey Encke’s collection Most Wanted: A Gamble in Verse is different. Holding it feels dangerous in the way that Pandora’s Box was dangerous. Here is a book contained in cardboard and cellophane—an unfamiliar format without a spine to hold it in order. There is something satisfying about having to unwrap a collection of poetry. The plastic falls away and the words begin.
Starting with the outline of a silhouette on the leader card, Encke’s collection alludes both in title and image to the infamous “Most Wanted” deck of cards put out by the U. S. Military that depicted wanted Iraqi terrorists. However, while those cards each had a rectangular portrait against a blank white background, Encke’s cards are far more complex. Designed by Encke and Vivek Chadaga, no two cards are visually similar. The images are distressed and the text looks typed on. The hearts tend towards rust-bloody reds, most of the spades have a sick yellow-green hue, but nothing is consistent. The seven of spades is dark and the suit and number are both almost impossible to read. White text vividly cuts across the lower third, reading “the stench of supper/ripples my lips”. Taken alone, these words are unsettling. Within the context of the deck and the text that might lead or follow, the words become sinister and violent.
Encke confronts his reader with 52 beginnings, 51 second verses, 50 choices for a third... A run from the nine to the jack of diamonds reads: (“all you asked/was that I bring you/hellebore, cantaloupe,/guava, water”) (“I hoped to unlock/the answers,/to sweep the barrel/of the skull”) (“and years later,/as my body entered change,/you flooded in/with your amens,/your ricin tinctures”). But shuffle the cards, and the poem changes. The permutations feel endless.
In my first flip through the deck, I dismissed the violence. I clung to the five of diamonds (“dictating your name/to the world/in gestures”) and the four of hearts (“between our/heavy breath/and the world’s/a couple strolls”). I found the verses that are stark and beautiful and verses that seemed like pieces of conversation between lovers. The advantage of a shifting deck is that you can deal the cards in your own favor if you know how to shuffle them right. As I played with the cards, a darker tone that I couldn’t control began to emerge. On the pale green seven of clubs, “a man presses stars/into an empty box,/roping them down/with tweezers and glue” and the act of collage becomes an act of restraint and confinement. The violence is tamped down on the eight of spades with “I hear a muffle/of an ultimatum”. Though few of the cards directly address terrorism, the emotions involved are an ever present undercurrent running beneath the collection. Still, with a whole deck of options, nothing is clear cut.
The speaker shifts from card to card to become captor and captive, observer and observed. A body is constructed between the cards but as the cards change the body changes. The poem is constantly in flux and specific details are difficult to pin down. The ten of hearts proclaims “we speak openly/of taboos,/keeping the heads/of our enemies/closest,/and fresh” and the three of spades answers “look at what I have done,/this shameful thing,/saying too much/of nothing”.
Most Wanted is not an easy collection. Poetry demands attention of a different sort than playing cards, but Encke confronts us with both at the same time. It is simple enough to flip through the cards and absorb this collection as though a game, but Encke asks more. To read this collection takes true participation. He writes, on the eight of clubs, “we shared/the responsibility of blood,/the imprint of fear/in their eyes”. It is each reader’s decision where to move next.