Book Review

Pheromonal by Rob Eckert. Slinger, Wisconsin: Desperado Press, 2009.$8/$6

Reviewed by Noel Sloboda

Rob Eckert’s Pheromonal comes at readers through their noses. From “Chlorine” to “Dove Soap,” from “Sweat” to “Azalea,” the seventeen poems in this volume present strong smells that evoke the poet’s world. Eckert reminds us of the emotional connotations of everyday scents, like fresh-cut ginger and old cigarette smoke. He also tantalizes us with rarified fragrances, such as “shampoo smiles” and “salted fur / wet with jailbait tears.”

Those with well-tuned ears might be initially thrown by having to rely so much on their nostrils as they move through Eckert’s fragrant botanical gardens, aromatic kitchens, and half-sanitized hotel rooms. And those accustomed to poetry with strong imagery might find the olfactorily-obssessed works in Pheromonal difficult to appreciate. But even though Eckert assaults with smell, he does not neglect the other senses. He calls up the taste of medication, “like yeast, blood, floral,” and treats our palates to “banana-rum” along with “carpaccio of sliced beef and ground basil.” At the same time, Eckert invites us to hear “the harmonies / of stretched muscle / and integrated voices,” skillfully playing with sound. Take this alliterative line about pickles: “they were sweet and crunched clean.” Or, consider Eckert’s lively description of “sweet yellow winds / curling lightly-salted hair.” Nor is the author without inspiration in crafting figures; he offers a room that is “clean like a federal building” as well as a flower that smells “like somebody who is nervous.”

As a collection, Pheromonal is richly varied but imperfectly balanced. A few of the poems overreach, grappling with the vastness of the sea (“Ocean”), or stressing abstractions such as the “luxuriant” or the “terrifying.” For the most part, though, Eckert keeps us rooted in the physical world, in poems like “High School Band Room,” in which the speaker stumbles upon interlinked discoveries:

that trombonists
are the best kissers,

and exactly
what betrayal
and hurricane-sized pizza
taste like.

Eckert’s most resonant poems thrust us into such scenes, putting our senses to work, teasing out multivalent possibilities in seemingly quotidian sensations.

In the playful “Scratch ‘N Sniff Stickers,” Eckert writes about one sticker “that shouts TRY IT YOU WILL LIKE IT / and turns out to be poop-smell.” Nobody who picks up Pheromonal need worry about such false advertising. This chapbook never masquerades as something it is not. It begins with “A Liquid Poem,” presenting “fireworks,” “drunk people’s voices,” and “the taste / of ash,” and throughout the pages that follow, it remains consistently punchy and vibrant. Pheromonal might leave some noses raw and even burn a few tongues. But for those who seek intense stimulation—both sensory and imaginative—Eckert’s collection is worth the risk.

Noel Sloboda lives in Pennsylvania, where he teaches at Penn State York and serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival. He is the author of the poetry collection Shell Games (sunnyoutside, 2008) and the chapbook  Stages (sunnyoutside, 2010).