Since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville, America has relied on the perspective of outsiders to reveal our nation as it truly is. Frank Thomas Rosen is another voice that we should add to that list of valuable perspectives. Rosen, who grew up in East Germany and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall before moving to Ohio, is an observer both inside and outside the country. By his own description, he is “an east-german poet / tasting the bark of / american poetic diction”. Who better to interrogate the great American experiment of democracy?
And that’s just what Rosen does in his new collection from Cherry Castle Publishing, auschwitz of the digital age and other poems: new cognitive poetry. He dives into what Stephen Delbos describes as “the quotidian horrors of 21st century America”: sexual violence, opioid addiction, climate change, the healthcare crisis. My favorite poems—and the ones that affected me the most—deal with gun violence in schools. Consider the heart-stopping last stanza of “my brief american eternity,” for instance: “i can’t clean this hand / of dope, money, and nails / laying minors to rest”. “american blank” and “local discount news” similarly took my breath away.
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If there is one overall subject that Rosen addresses in this collection, it is our dependence on digital technology. The title poem, “auschwitz of the digital age,” confronts readers immediately with the opening lines “heaven’s odor / username:” for instance.
Rosen plays with online conventions throughout this collection. He eschews capitalization just like we tend to do online and in text messages. The poems themselves are short—many are only a few lines long—seemingly made for our tiny digital attention spans.
But it’s here that Rosen challenges those digital tendencies. His poems are short, but they’re arresting. Tara Betts calls them “taut,” which is exactly right. They thrum with an urgent, demanding energy. Rosen, after all, writes cognitive poetry, which uses the principles of cognitive psychology to elicit a response in readers. He wants to make us feel something.
And the poems in auschwitz of the digital age will wrench feelings from you. Rosen does this through diction, through juxtaposition, through establishing and breaking patterns, and through playing with rhyme. These poems pack a punch. Each one seems to grab you by the collar and force you to face its subject matter; the only respite is in the space between the poems.
Perhaps this is exactly the point. In a collection that takes on the dangers of our digital dependency, these (often tweet-sized) poems force us to engage with them, not just scroll mindlessly by. They demand that we linger over them, stare at the words and turn them over on our tongues to find the meaning in them.
There is much in auschwitz of the digital age for readers to discover, and then to think about long after they’ve put the collection down.
Frank Thomas Rosen’s collection auschwitz of the digital age and other poems: new cognitive poetry (2019) is available from Cherry Castle Publishing. Rosen has another collection, scratches (2003), published in English and German as part of the Ohio Arts Council – Dresden Artist Exchange program.