Matthew Buckley Smith. Dirge for an Imaginary World. San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2012. 80 pp. $16.95, paper.
After the decades of foofaraw, after the histrionic wailing and the gnashing of teeth, let us be honest. American poetry is not, after all, dead. Yes, it contains a great deal of necrotic tissue in it, but a pulse persists. Our poetry remains vital not only in the work of our many distinguished elder statesmen, like Walcott and Wilbur, but also in the work of youngish and younger poets like Bill Coyle, Morri Creech, Stephen Kampa, Adam Kirsch, A.E. Stallings, Natasha Trethewey, Caki Wilkinson, and Greg Williamson. All of these poets are, at their best, astoundingly good, jaw-droppingly, heart-stoppingly good, and there are many more who are deserving of notice. And then, let us not forget that Claudia Emerson, Joseph Harrison, Mary Jo Salter, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Rosanna Warren, and Franz Wright, among others, are all, as of this writing, under sixty, and are all writing brilliantly. Yes, we live, after all, in an age of great bounty. In the midst of the riotous city, of the obstreperous hordes swarming the streets, the sumptuous banquet of good poetry has gone on, unperturbed, and we should be grateful.
Of course, for all the excellence, for all the wheat, there is a great deal more chaff, as is always the case, and, due to the proliferation of writing programs and journals, the evidence of that chaff is more apparent now than in ages past, is, in fact, to some degree institutionalized at this point. But the sins of bad writing are, more or less, the same as they ever were, and primary among them is the sin of pride, which is another name for certainty, which is another name for complacency. So many writers, who would mock the worst of the Victorians for thoughtlessly wrenching their every notion into blank verse, will themselves thoughtlessly allow their own notions to slouch into a free verse more accurately called “non-verse,” taking for granted that metrical poetry, or even more loosely formal poetry, is not the kind of thing one does anymore. Id est: bad poets are forever taking form for granted. As Pound said, “Meter must mean,” and that is true, whether one writes in a regular meter or in free verse. Indeed, the practitioners of non-verse are those who forget that, in Pound’s command to “Make it new,” the word, “it,” has an antecedent. Novelty is not the end of poetry.
But the best response to bad writing is silence, so let us shift our topic. Among the excellent youngish and younger poets of our time, one notices, in general, a tendency toward playfulness. This playfulness—a kind of tombstone-jumping irony in the manner Calvino ascribes to Cavalcanti—serves most often as a fake ID to allow great moral seriousness to sneak into the dance-club. It is an excellent technique, but one must acknowledge it is not the only technique. What our poetry has been missing for some time is a sterner voice, a severer vision, willing to risk being uncool, willing to risk the buffoonery of brooding in order to speak gravely of grave matters. Such a voice, such a vision does not forbid humor, but its humor is darker, heavier, bitterer than the lissome jokes and puns we more often encounter. Bill Coyle’s outstanding debut, The God of This World to His Prophet, moves in the direction of such a voice and such a vision, but we get the thing full-on in Matthew Buckley Smith’s debut collection, Dirge for an Imaginary World.
Smith’s book is stark. Its vision is, most often, severe in the manner of George Meredith’s masterpiece, Modern Love. Of course, there are also traces of Swift, of Baudelaire, of Housman, of Larkin. It is the kind of poetry written by a man of serious mind, refusing complacency, refusing the cuddly lies of comfort, and walking into the dark night’s storm, clear-eyed, in pursuit of the meaning of his existence. Carrie Jerrell, in her blurb, quite rightly notes the similarity between Smith’s poems and those of Thomas Hardy, as both poets trade in an austere and merciless beauty. Indeed, Smith is one of those rare poets, like Hardy, who can break your heart in all the ways you didn’t know you wanted it to be broken. Poem after poem says the things that we would say if we were more honest, and says those honest things the way we would say them if we were more artful. But, unlike Hardy, who could rely on a chilly pastoral mode to dramatize his characters’ inner suffering, Smith, being a poet of our own age, cannot turn to brumal heaths and beautifully drear landscapes but must, instead, show the heartbroken and lost of our own time as they are, wandering through city streets and suburban bars, lacking even the dignity of suffering picturesquely.
I miss believing that I’ll never die,
Or is it that there won’t be a tomorrow?
Both lines work out about the same: deny
The day you’ll have to pay back what you borrow.
It used to be I never went to bed
A second night with any girl I found.
No breakfast in those days—a smoke instead,
Then out the door before she came around.
Last night I passed a toppled garbage bin,
Its liner sagging with a rat’s remains.
He sank a little when I squinted in
And seemed embarrassed by his greedy pains.
And so much like a man, the way he sat
Still in his death, and so much like a rat.
This is devastating poetry, devastating. Smith refuses to indulge in idealizing his past, refuses to be transported by the sweet incense of memory into a transcendent and deathless realm, though he “miss[es]” the ability to do so. The speaker recognizes the appeal of that vision, but he cannot allow himself to indulge in it, because that vision is a lie. Instead, the poem, which is the book’s first, opens by bluntly asserting the speaker’s idealism has passed, and by subtly asserting that this speaker is, in consequence, aware of his own mortality, of his confinement within the prison of Time. How many poets luxuriate in the plush sensuality of their pasts, never reaching the detachment or self-awareness Smith reaches in his first line! How many poets wrap themselves in their idealism like a Snuggy™! Not Smith: the sonnet suggests that the big fun of youth, the trysts and the self-destructive habits, the pursuit of lubricious escape worshiped by our culture, is akin to the rat feeding on filth.
Why is the rat in the dumpster dead? If we take the entire image of the rat as functionally metaphorical, we find the dumpster is the vehicle for Time, a grim enough vision, but we also find that the dead rat is the figure for the speaker, suggestive of the spiritual death accompanying such a hedonistic past. But the poem is not so easy. The simile of the couplet acknowledges the comparison’s failure: the speaker is not actually dead like the rat; rather, the speaker must go on living, having endured the death of idealism, the death of which disallows the certain correlation of one thing with another. Indeed, the simile must fail, as correspondences fail, if we are to believe Rimbaud’s revelations leading up to his famous Le musique savant manque à notre désir. Ah, the speaker cannot even accept the cold comfort of ultimate despair, which would come with accepting that he himself is adequately represented by the dead rat. This is honesty. This is the “little ease” described by Camus in The Fall, that device of torture in which one, being enclosed, can neither stand up straight nor sit entirely down, and in which one must forever contort one’s self into a different state of discomfort. The poem refuses idealism, and it refuses despair. The poem, at last, refuses certainty, because certainty is, for Smith, the great lie. In fact, we might say that certainty itself is the “imaginary world” of the book’s title. Poem after poem strips away the veneer of certainty and strives to see things as they are. Of course, such a seeing is, the book reminds us, impossible, and this impossibility is at the book’s thematic core.
But, whenever poetry’s involved, a discussion of theme must lead to a discussion of style. We might begin by saying that Dirge for an Imaginary World contains no free verse, that it contains a wide variety of forms, including sonnets; ballad stanzas; heroic couplets; sestets; rhymed quatrains in trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter; poems in mixed meters; blank verse; Sapphics; hemistichs; et cetera. The variety of forms within the book, however, is not a sign of Smith’s formal mastery; what is a sign of Smith’s formal mastery is that each form means, that each poem’s form significantly interacts with its content. How? Most often, as the poem’s content strips away the lies of certainty, as the content rubbles the foundations of each imaginary world, the form, ironically, is building a new imaginary world, a new shape, a new myth, with the perfection of the form’s exactitudes corresponding to the perfection of the lie that is certainty. In short, Smith’s forms function by illustrating the subjective self’s inability to transcend itself or enter into things as they are, the inability of the I to be certain, even of uncertainty. If the book is a “dirge,” a formal work of music, it is a work of art, an imaginary world, lamenting the passing of another imaginary world, and Smith’s is the vision that refuses to forget it is a vision, that scrutinizes its seeing even as it sees, that mistrusts itself as much as it mistrusts the idealism it sees through.
For complacent readers, the appearance of traditional forms may signal some kind of old-fashioned stuffiness, a square-ness, a lack of familiarity with “what’s going on” in poetry. Nonsense. Smith’s poems do what good poems do with forms: they make their forms integral. If the poems are not faddish, or en vogue, it is only because good poetry is rarely faddish, or en vogue; it is always difficult, because it is always faithful to life, and the world, especially in our time, has little use for difficulty or fidelity, easy and promiscuous entertainments being constantly available. Happily, good readers have already recognized Smith’s achievements. Here is his “Nowhere,” which Kevin Young selected for the Best American Poetry 2011:
i.m. Steve Sigur
The sprinkler system wakes up on the hour,
Casting its vacant arcs across the lawn.
All night its clockwork tends to every flower
Bedded down here to bury roots and spawn,
While nowhere in particular my friend,
Who just last week lay mumbling on a cot,
Is dead, is nothing time or work can mend,
Though his machinery remains to rot
As I walk late at night across a campus
Hundreds of miles away, which is to say
As near to him as anywhere, and tempus
Fugit no less irreparabile
From me than from the blossoms here and there
Who do not know their lot, and do not care.
You’ll note this poem includes a glance at the famous passage from the Georgica of Vergil: Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore, or, “But it flees in the meanwhile; time flees irretrievably, while we wander in circles, captive in our love of the singular.” The realization, reached through this allusion, is brutal. For all our self-knowledge, we come to the same end as the “blossoms” and the people who don’t pursue knowledge and just don’t care. The noble Roman and the barbarian die the same death. This is a particularly brutal realization for writer-types, who want to think that we are better off for all our learning, for our reading Vergil, for our studying Latin, for our writing whatever it is we write. Perhaps we are, but Smith refuses to congratulate himself for reading poetry, or for writing poetry. The poem can’t settle for the certainty, so rampant in the poetry world, that everyone should read poetry, and should write poetry, and that poetry makes us better people, as if browsing a book of sonnets could wash us clean of sin. Is it really any solace to Vergil to know that a writer, 2000 years later, is quoting a fragment of a work few read, even fewer in its own language? Did it change his fate, spare his suffering, that he was the greatest poet of the world’s greatest empire? Probably not. Vergil, the man, is dead, though his gifts remain.
As for that, there is quite a bit in Dirge for an Imaginary World that has a chance to remain, if not in the political treatises so often being passed off as anthologies these days, at least in the hearts of its readers. Poems like “The Ascetic Speaks of Heaven,” “Meaning,” “A Lesson,” “A Pledge,” “Juglans Nigra,” “Late Aubade,” “At the Spring Ballet Exams,” and, my personal favorite, “Diary,” are nearly perfect, and one has no sooner read them than one seems, almost, to have memorized them. Smith’s poems, at their best, are rich in the complexity that rewards careful and repeated reading, but they are also pleasurable, available, at least in part, on the first read. They are poems of what Allen Tate called “knowledge carried to the heart,” poems written with the entirety of the human apparatus, and, while the poems’ distinctly grave vision and voice, coupled with their dexterous technique, may initially seem abrasive in their divergence from the more familiar and jubilant manner, they should earn Smith a place at the banquet with our best young poets, where, amid the brilliance and headiness, the need will arise, at the end of the night, for a sober, steady-handed poet to drive everyone home.
Will Schutt. Westerly. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. 80 pp. $18.00, paper.
This year’s Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize went to Will Schutt for Westerly, a collection of poems that meditate on travel and mortality, on being led and pushed to and from the West. Schutt engages memory and its fallibilities, the elegy and possibilities that must come with it. The speaker takes the reader on travels from a small town in Rhode Island, to Wisconsin, to the West Coast, and to Italy.
He sets the tone of the collection with the opening poem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” balancing the intellectual with pop culture, giving weight to the historical patter of Billy Joel as he invokes de Sade, foreshadowing loss amidst a pleasant summer scene. In “Rock Maple, White Pine,” he writes “Part of you is thinking this early / why ravel means entangle and disentangle // at the same time, as if the interrogative / mood were the only concept // hanging about to hold the hour still.” This is what Schutt gives us throughout the collection—poems that entangle and disentangle at the same time. He teasingly complicates and simplifies in the same sentences, kindly asking the reader to consider the speaker’s observations and declarations. In the unrhymed sonnet “A Kind of Poetry,” Schutt writes “Sometimes you turn to poetry / the way you turn to another country. / […] / You notice things you wouldn’t / otherwise. You notice things.” He then does exactly that in the elegantly translated mid-century Italian poems that make up the second section.
In “Crenellated Playroom,” his most heartbreaking poem and the longest in the collection, Schutt elegizes a dear friend who died young, whose “midlife crisis / peaked in prep school.” She is the embodiment of youth and maturity, living and elegy. In the poem, as her health fails, Laura’s personality is vibrant; she is those contradictions embodied. As Schutt writes, “—At her sickest, whittled down to brutal / humor only have-nots possess, grand dame / receiving guests in bed, Laura would say, / ‘That coat’s not really your color’ or ‘I hope / she’s not at my funeral.’” She is the juxtaposition of the serious intellectual and the democratic humorist.
In Westerly, Schutt takes up estrangement. It finds its way into poems about family and fatherhood, about travel, growing up, and loss. As Carl Phillips writes in his introduction to the collection, “we become more estranged, it seems, not only from others but from ourselves—who we were, who we remember being, or what we think we remember, which is different from knowing.” In the ekphrastic poem, “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” Schutt sees in the image his “young father…[laying] the groundwork for divorce.”
Schutt is at his best when his poems are at once intimate and confessional, traditional and restrained. His work is personal and public, domestic and international. Even in death, the poems are full of life. He examines, then peels layers back slowly, revealing—in stunning and accessible language—complicated and difficult truths.
Douglas Watson. The Era of Not Quite. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd, 2013. 147 pp. $14.00, paper.
If, as the book Hal Walker returns to the library in the opening scene of “The Era of Not Quite” suggests, the Era of Not Quite has been “running continuously since the dawn of human history,” it would explain a lot. In fact, it would explain everything: from unrequited love to a man’s brain in the street. For what it means to live in the Era of Not Quite is to reach for a thing, and not quite seize it. And then to keep reaching.
Watson is a very smart writer, and unlike many uses of that word—“smart”—in this context, I mean it here as a compliment, not a way to dismiss a work as technically clever but lacking heart or sincerity. Watson’s thoughts on this tension illustrate his sensibility as a writer: “I do think heart, or ‘heart,’ is important to my fiction—or any good fiction. Of course, you need blood too, or ‘blood.’ Can’t have one without the other. The mysterious stuff of life, in other words.”
Thus, on one hand, The Era of Not Quite is a stunning example of Barthes’ notion of the “writerly text,” a text that challenges the reader by constantly calling attention to its constructed nature (think Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). Some of the greatest pleasures of Watson’s collection are the jokes he plays on the reader. For example, there are two distinct characters named “Douglas Watson” in The Era of Not Quite, and in the middle of the book, there is a…story? (one wonders what exactly to call it) titled “Special Advertising Section,” in which the marketing division of the Estate of Douglas Watson apologizes for the fact that The Era of Not Quite is not a novel.
On the other hand, because everything in the collection is in tension with its opposite—especially play and sincerity—this is a book in which literary criticism literally kills and the clever theories of music critics lead one narrator to complain, “Talk about missing the point.” This is because for Watson, the smart stuff isn’t about technical or philosophical bravado—it’s about fun. When I asked him about maintaining this tricky balance in his work, he called in an answer from Playland: “Well, the best way to strike a balance is to stand on two feet. If you stand on just the play foot, you’ll fall over into Playland. And if you stand on just the sincerity foot, you’ll tip over and be completely lost in Sincerityland, which is an even worse place to be than Playland, believe me.” Then suddenly he was serious: “My mother, who loved words and was better at them than I am, once approvingly quoted someone—I don’t remember who—as saying that anyone who thought words were mainly for communication was a fool. I’m paraphrasing. The best thing to do with words was have fun with them, the person said. Maybe it was even a quote on the Scrabble box, for all I can remember. My mom and I played a lot of Scrabble, and I’m happy to say that she won more than her share of our games, even toward the end when she was really very sick and didn’t have much energy.”
Watson isn’t much of a self-promoter, and he’s a fairly private person. He was open, though, about the way his mother’s recent death inevitably affected many of the stories in the collection: “I wrote The Era of Not Quite at a time when I was confronting death and loss and grief for the first time—I mean in a big way, in my immediate family. So I didn’t have patience for the small stuff. You know: ‘Bill drank a glass of milk. It made him think of milk paint. He’d been wanting to change the color of his living-room walls, but the question was, Which color was the right one?’ What I would say to Bill is, Who cares? Don’t you know you’re going to die? Get outside and get some exercise or something.”
This urgency pervades all of the stories in The Era of Not Quite. Most are quite short, and if the main character isn’t dead by the end, it’s probably because they’re talking right at you (one of the best pieces in the collection, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” is a dramatic monologue delivered from a cynical teacher to her alternately inattentive and smart-alecky students). Some of the stories read like fables and accordingly cut right to the chase: “Long ago, when fate governed the lives of mortals, there was a lad whose lot in life was to love a girl whose lot in life was to be abducted by a fearsome dragon.” Note: if you’re a bit put off by characters named “lad,” “girl” or “boy,” don’t be. For here, appearing where it shouldn’t, is my thesis, in two parts: 1) you can’t forget that a character in a book by Douglas Watson is just a character in a book by Douglas Watson, and 2) you’ll care about that character anyway.
The best way to test this thesis is to read “Wolves,” previously published in The Journal Issue 35.1, a story that uses structural innovation for profound emotional impact. The story left me so stunned, I had to ask Watson about its genesis. He said, “I wrote ‘Wolves’ in the year after my mother died, so there’s a direct tie-in. But I just wrote the thing—for a workshop I was in, actually—and then other people pointed out that I was dealing in symbols. Rather heavy-handed ones at that. And I said, Huh, you’re right. But I’d had no idea. But I mean, there’s music, there’s a church, there’s a library. None of them provides any comfort or any answers. And then the wolves come at you. That’s what it’s like to lose your mother.”
At the same time, Watson emphasizes that the story isn’t autobiography: “The autobiographical stuff might partly explain how I came to write it, but the story is not a coded message whose true subject is me. A story can mean many things to many people, and that is one reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction. And books to life.”
Of course I’d be remiss not to remind you that there are twenty-two more stories like “Wolves” waiting for you—wolf-like—in Watson’s collection. For like his character Jacob Livesey, the experimental composer, Watson’s best stuff “evoke[s] the twin longings that t[ear], although not asunder, the inner lives of many of his contemporaries: the desire for repetition” (that’s “heart,” the stuff you nod over, weeping) “and the hunger for something—anything—new” (and that’s play).
Michelle Chan Brown. Double Agent. Tucson, AZ: Kore Press, 2012. 80 pp. $14.00, paper.
Michelle Chan Brown’s mischievous debut, Double Agent, clears a wider space for both spying (loosely defined) and expatriation in poetry. Old tensions make their appearances—strained relationships, illicit love affairs—along with a menagerie of devices from slant rhyme to aggressively enjambed free verse. Yet the book’s foreignness is unavoidable. Set in a version of the Eastern bloc, Brown’s speaker guides readers on a sort of participant-observer tour where language and vision become alien.
While travel is a familiar topic, Brown makes it unfamiliar with terse, streetwise paranoia, as if Pynchon were made to write with a telegraph. Even in the table of contents, the reader is introduced to an amorphous hostility with titles like “Semi-Domesticated Arsonist” and “The Newlywed’s Guide to Hunting.” And the poems themselves brim with the cold surrealism of espionage. In “Enemy,” she claims, “Genial. Harmless as a new hat. / That is the way of plagues.” One feels the line becoming a contested boundary, a space for gamesmanship and deceit. But while some poets get drunk on these sorts of hijinks, the reader questions neither Brown’s cleverness nor her seriousness. In the same poem: “They’ll eat off the family tree. / History told them: no one ever starved / for love. The mother darned / old flags for their cadavers.”
Danger suffuses the poems’ imagery as well. One senses a sardonic version of T.S. Eliot in “Open House,” where Brown chillingly puns on the crowd: “They are pillars of society. Hence the faces of stone.” And here, she confronts paranoia embodied:
My mother was afraid of her fingers.
She squirreled them in the dry crevices
of the furniture. Desiccate there, little liars,
she’d croon, rocking herself into her fear….
Threats loom in and out in the forms of a hypnotist, lovers, even (seriously) rabbits. And though these threats seem to emanate, as the setting might suggest, from a Cold War ambiance, the book treats the setting not as an engine for dried-up politicking, but for aesthetic exploration. In the first of the “Autobiography” series, the speaker watches “The windmills hum their song / through the nuclear plants. A time, / a time for kindling.” Elsewhere, “The potatoes’ eye-sockets disapprove of her dye job.”
But beyond all else, Brown’s capacity for whimsy and spontaneity makes these poems memorable. One always senses wryness at the margins, a resistance against the poems’ bent for bleakness. Lines like “Our talk was small enough for the laden table” suggest a sort of high-society Dick Tracy. In the sassy and heartbreaking “Pleasuring the Enemy,” she writes, “You give a leather mask a real personality. I feel / the edge of every bad-sex dream / knifing its merry way under my eyelids.” Too often in poetry, such bold posturing sounds desperate. Here, though, the speaker’s bravado reveals the sadness surrounding her, the fears she has learned to live with.
And those moments of oblique vulnerability lead, unmistakably, to compassion. She offers these beautiful lines from the end of “Shipwreck”:
We were used to solitude. Some of us
had worked the mills, where skylights cracked
and loaned us stars. We learned to relish
the ownership of hours. Our sheets
acceded to the torpor. If you must
call it sickness—the sea colonized us.
Below muslin, our heartbeats thrilled,
lazy as laps. Breezes licked our faces flat.
If we wept, we wept soundless as sand.
What wave would betray our trust?
Caesuras resolve to an uninterrupted line as alliteration emerges and end-stops become insistent. The utterance, as if realizing its own entanglement in punctuation, gives up its declarations for a question. Here and elsewhere, the speaker opens herself to clarity, so when cleverness and confidence return, they feel different—more complicated.
As with any distinctive voice, the possibility for cloying the reader is virtually unavoidable, and there are one or two poems the collection could thrive without. But taken as a whole, Double Agent successfully rides its formal flexibility and vocal daring from beginning to end. The title, of course, prefaces the intrigue found in the subject matter, but it also points to the spying found here and in all good poetry: excitement both in what is revealed and how that revelation happens.
Alan Shapiro. Night of the Republic. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 92 pp. $21.00, cloth.
The most memorable exhibit at the 2003 Venice Biennial was an installation by Mladen Stilinović titled “Dictionary of Pain.” Stilinović had removed a hundred or more individual pages from an English dictionary and framed them on two rows of columns in a large warehouse. On every framed page the definition of each word was neatly whited out and replaced by the single hand-printed word: “pain.” It was a simple concept, and maybe even a cheap one, but the work’s force was cumulative. Walking the length of the warehouse and seeing all those pages—all those meanings erased, all that minuscule labor, all that evidence—gave one comfort, as if pain could take objective representation. The installation’s formulaic blandness seemed apt for recording the unspeakable.
Something like this starts to happen around twenty pages into Alan Shapiro’s new book of poems, Night of the Republic. Shapiro’s eleventh, the collection takes as its subject matter not everyday life as we experience it, but rather the settings that support this life. These settings, and the parts they comprise, tend to be invisible until broken or abandoned. They are abandoned here by everyone but the unselfed speaker who visits them at night. Over the first thirty-two pages, no human beings appear, aside from a single dozing clerk. Two of the book’s four sections are called “Night of the Republic,” and these comprise tender, tedious portraits of mundane locales all seeming to exist in the same small city in the same long night.
Shapiro writes mostly in short lines without regular meter or rhyme, though consonance and internal rhyme leave some passages pleasantly clotted. The fourth section is composed in very loose blank verse, but the form of any individual poem in the book is unremarkable. Reading poems in order—“Gas Station Restroom,” “Car Dealership at 3 a.m.,” “Supermarket,” “Park Bench”—can start to impose a sublime sort of boredom. These poems are baldly impersonal, but unlike “conceptual poetry,” of which Kenneth Goldsmith says, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the text,” the exercises in Night of the Republic reveal a deep and thoughtful rigor.
As if in correspondence to the deserted places Shapiro describes, the poems’ minor words —articles, pronouns, prepositions—gain foreground as he guides the reader through his visions. Here are the first several lines of “Car Dealership at 3 a.m.”:
Over the lot a sodium aura
above the new cars sprays
of denser many-colored brightnesses
are rising and falling in a time lapse
of a luminous and ghostly
garden forever flourishing
up out of its own decay.
Any spiritual promise is fixed to earth by clumps of stubborn connective speech: “within which / above,” “up out of its.” Language in these poems mimics subject matter: rich at times but always of the world.
Going from poem to poem in the titular sections feels at times like moving through rooms of an empty house. The suspicion that one is alone grows to certainty and then gives way to lonesome curiosity. As with Invisible Cities—Calvino’s novel-in-street-plans—these installments reveal a formal consistency. One comes to understand them as a kind of lipogram, in which the missing element is human presence. “Downtown Strip Club” begins, “Its night is all day long,” six words that close off hope for a lively scene. These poems restore a little blood flow to our ready-to-hand use of daily stuff. “Funeral Home,” the last poem in the first “Night of the Republic,” concludes with an enumeration of the furniture in the empty parlor:
on the spotless breakfront
and between the chairs
and couches and on either
side of the doorways to the
family room, the chapel,
and the roped-off staircase
which if not for the rope
could be a staircase in an inn
made to look like a home
made to look like a mansion
where no one lives.
This stepwise postlude to a room’s things calls to mind the children’s book Goodnight Moon, but that likeness only makes the passage more unsettling. All the shapes that frame the world we take for granted—even in mourning—grow through Night of the Republic ever less always-already there.
After the first section’s long, unpopulated night, the book’s first use of the word “I” is both comforting and jarring. “Galaxy Formation,” as the second section is called, begins with the strongest single poem in Night of the Republic. The book’s power comes mostly from accumulated meaning, but one can imagine “Triumph” surviving extraction for an anthology. “I saw him as I drove by,” Shapiro begins, “I don’t have to tell you what he looked like.” A description of a stranger’s public suffering, the poem has some of the plainness of speech one finds in work by Carl Dennis or even Billy Collins. Here, though, the narrator offers no avuncular wisdom, no crinkly-eyed solace. Shapiro is crisper and a little crueler than either of these poets. In exchange for warmth lost we get clarity:
But whatever I did or didn’t do
I did it to forget that
he was the one asleep on the sidewalk,
I was the one borne along in the car
that might as well have been a chariot
of empathy, a chariot
the crowd cheers
even as it weeps
for the captured elephant too wide
to squeeze through
the triumphal arch
and draw home
to bed my sweet
sensitive Caesar of a soul.
That most of the other poems in Night of the Republic are forgettable does not make the book a failure. The emptiness with which Shapiro views both populated and unpopulated zones of the republic lends his poems a compassion unavailable to more tender-hearted poets. With unblinking attention he observes a flustered woman holding up the line at the gas station, “scavenging through receipts / pens tissues / and prescriptions.” He overhears a lady on her cell phone in a bar, her voice “tense with what it’s trying not to sound like, saying, ‘Honey, listen to me, honey. Honey. Honey. I am not your mother.’” In a chilling but unfocused poem about the young bride of a death-camp commandant, he notes with calm “our ignorance about the many ways / there are to suffer,” never stepping forth to offer a lesson or a judgment.
The last section of the book is a series of riffs on images that hold what seems to be personal meaning to Shapiro. After the expansiveness of the preceding three sections, these poems feel a bit dinky. Still, at ninety-two pages, Night of the Republic provides more fine poetry than some new-and-selecteds. It seems right to conclude by mentioning the last poem of the second titular section, the only one of its cohort not to take a location as its subject. “The Public” numbers two sentences in all, one short, one long. The second is an epic simile that tries to draw into light the shadow that trails every citizen of a republic. Homer assigns to his great subject, war, two contrasting epithets. Sometimes he calls it “man-wasting war,” and sometimes he calls it “war where men win glory.” But it is always both. For one man to taste victory, another has to die. Shapiro’s subject is less violent, but not maybe not any less grim. His is a book about comfort, the slightly boring comfort of civilized life, the reverse of which is a desolation that is––he suggests––just as ubiquitous. Defining the title of his poem, “The Public,” Shapiro shrugs knowingly: “The no one of it / is everywhere.”
Holly Goddard Jones. The Next Time You See Me. New York: Touchstone Books, 2013. 384 pp. $24.99, cloth.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the writing of Holly Goddard Jones without expounding upon the virtuosity of her prose. Given how she traffics so easily between interiority and action, perception and power, a critic might be tempted to stage a review of her new novel, The Next Time You See Me, as a sort of writer’s workshop on how to best use exposition and what it means to reveal a character’s personality while simultaneously increasing their mystery and allure.
Stylistically—and it must be conceded that this represents a coarse, cut-out dichotomy—writers thrive in one territory or the other: either the writer relishes in the Why of the Interior, whereby the evaluation of how a character is capable of what he or she ultimately does trumps the actual deed or misprision (Perhaps Roth, Paul Auster, or even William James could be positioned here); or the writer invests themselves in a clear and present Testimony of Events, whereby the author entrusts the reader’s imagination to speculate and attach possible motives to a corresponding action or exchange of dialogue (I think of Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway). Again, rather than pigeonhole any specific author’s work, this binary aims to invite discussion and highlight the fact that Holly Goddard Jones seems to blend the two for optimum effect. Not only does the accuracy of her insight dazzle us with how she’s able to peer through everyday interactions into the deeper truths and contradictions of personality, she deftly maneuvers through the pivotal, high-stakes scenes where the major threads of her novel’s world come to a head.
Of course, these types of considerations would lead audiences to believe that Goddard Jones is a sort of writer’s writer, a literary aficionado’s delight not meant for enjoyment by the general public, but this would be an incredible misstep given how eminently readable this book is. Staged, in a sense, like a mystery or thriller, The Next Time You See Me focuses on the events surrounding the murder of Ronnie Eastman and the discovery of her remains. Indeed, if The Next Time You See Me could be used to instruct creative writing students in anything, it would be how to successfully withhold information without unfairly manipulating the reader. Though we learn very late in the novel the actual details surrounding Ronnie’s death, the revelation only confirms facts we’ve safely assumed early on in the book. What we learn isn’t the murderer’s identity, but how such a thing was possible, even inevitable, and it takes exactly three hundred and thirty pages to establish this. So, yes, you can call Holly Goddard Jones a writer’s writer and lecture about her work in creative writing classrooms, but you won’t be doing so at the expense of her readership.
As events unfold and the citizens of Roma began to wonder how such a “crazy killer” could live so unassumingly among them in their town, the reader realizes that the murderer can do so because he is a product of this community. Roma—though a fictional construction—resembles many Kentucky towns. As a native Kentuckian, I can attest to this town’s rigid social stratification. No, it doesn’t take much wealth to put you at the top of the pyramid in such a small economy, especially in the early ’90s in which this novel takes place, but if you exist on the other side of the fence—the son or daughter of a factory worker or laborer—certain opportunities begin to close their doors on you pretty quickly and, once they start, they never stop.
Perhaps, this is why Wyatt Powell—at least to this reviewer—shines brightest among the catalogue of personalities we encounter. No character—aside from Emily Houchens (a socially challenged thirteen-year-old who fantasizes about the boy who is the cruelest to her)—garners as much sympathy as this overweight underachiever. By the time we encounter Wyatt, he’s all but resigned himself to his lonely skillet breakfasts, and his dog, Boss, is his only comfort. As he meets Sarah and embarks upon the first reciprocated romantic relationship of his adult life, we find ourselves cheering for him despite the darker portents we suspect.
In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter wrote that the task of fiction is “…to expose elements that are kept secret in a personality, so that the mask over that personality (or any system) falls either temporarily or permanently… [allowing] something of value to come up.” No statement could better assess the accomplishment of The Next Time You See Me and its approach toward the citizens of Roma. Though the masks come off from a half-dozen or so characters, the preponderance of these revelations remain private and contained, and hardly anyone comes completely clean, even to him- or herself. The bratty, yet intelligent Chris Shelton does begin to see that he has some attraction toward the geeky and sequestered Emily and that this affinity has amplified his gross mistreatment of her, but he will continue to suppress this attraction because she’s socially unacceptable as a romantic partner. Likewise, Tony (the cop assigned to Ronnie’s disappearance) does engage in an illicit affair with Ronnie’s sister, Susanna, but does so more out of convenience than to reciprocate Susanna’s genuine attraction to him, leaving her on an awkward precipice as the events of the novel close. In this way, Holly Goddard Jones manages to reveal characters while maintaining Roma’s status quo. Despite all that she drags out of the shadows, the lights in this narrow stretch of Kentucky remain pretty dim. As a writer you have to admire the vision and fidelity to life; as a reader you have to appreciate the ride.
Larissa Szporluk. Traffic with Macbeth. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2011. 59 pp. $16.95, paper.
Traffic with Macbeth is Szporluk’s fifth book, a collection of thirty-six poems broken into four parts, that ruminates on the murkier side of Shakespeare’s tragic general and the dissemination of grayness that saturates not only an implied Elizabethan world, but the banality of the everyday. That triteness and ashen despondency, however, is made extraordinary through the clipped lyric movements and eternal pondering that Szporluk’s poems pose. Transformation remains ever apparent in even the darkest moments of civilization, however encompassing or singular that bleakness may be for Szporluk’s subjects.
Frustration encapsulates the speaker in “Rainmaker” as he tackles his own shortcomings—the disappointment of not fulfilling the purpose of his very existence. “I call your name, rain, / and I fail. I fail and I fail and I fail.” The mythology of the rainmaker, the consistency and dependability of his own magic becomes, as Szporluk continues, “so chalked with loss / that it could be the bastard / of an answered prayer.” In the preceding monologue, “Harpy,” the siren encounters her own lack of mysticism and loss of power. Once a trait that was the ruin of men and the death of fleets, her voice now “choke[s] up / a dark mouse / with no skin / and wait[s] long / for the space / in [her] chest / to re-fist.” It is these moments of a first-realized immortality, the mundaneness of magic or fabled sensuality, or their very departure that produce a disturbing fog around our understanding of myth and tragedy, or at least those cemented in the glory of maxim and creation.
The collection spins a more widely lateral move with the speaker in “Sea Lettuce” commenting on the universal loss of not only loved ones, but the myth of love and its so-believed compulsory and ever-present ties:
How easily our loved ones
leave us, speeding into sunsets,
maiming us with absence.
beyond us they don’t miss us.
Is sympathy a medicine?
in this green lobotomy,
Mrs. Lettuce, will you listen?
An eagerness, a desperate imploring for humane connection and confirmation of existence—Mrs. Lettuce, will you listen?—meets, again, the reality of falsehood. This ironic composition, the reality of falsehood, aligns with Szporluk’s treatment of the steadfastness of story. Nothing, not even the grand statue of myth and myth-creating characters, however they may appear cemented in the permanence of tradition, solidly exists. These Elizabethan figures, rather, remain fluid and grievous so that this rare exposure of the defeated players and motifs speaks seamlessly to the corrupt Macbeth—the signification of declining order.
Szporluk’s collection grasps the lost, and perhaps unseen, visages of the solemn creatures of literary and mythical history. “We are tied to love and hate— / same track, same train,” the speaker in “Rogue’s March” states, and as the title of the collection suggests, we are in traffic with fraudulence and corruption—a state of being that Szporluk captures with a calmness that makes doom eerily enchanting.
Michael Nye. Strategies Against Extinction. Plano, TX: Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012. 238 pp. $14.95, paper.
Andre Dubus was happy when his one novel, The Lieutenant (1967), went out of print. He excelled within the short-fiction form: his collections had thematic glue despite the individuality of particular stories. Typically, the emotional current of great short fiction is inversely related to its word count, and Michael Nye’s debut collection, Strategies Against Extinction, does not simply introduce the reader to roughly a dozen separate lives; it reaches emotional depths not often touched in the short form.
Like Dubus’s work, Nye’s collection is careful without being reserved, mature without being telegraphed. Set in 1952,“The Re-Creationist” dramatizes a man employed as the last re-creationist in Major League Baseball. Don is fed game results through a Western Union ticker, and recreates the drama of Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio, using “a xylophone hammer, ruler, and a block of wood.” A prerecorded “soundtrack of crowd noise” complements his imitations. He must constantly be ready to “throw in” some story, some movement. Don learns he will be fired at the end of the season, and fabricates a Pirate victory over the Reds. Don’s decision to make a more palatable conclusion for his son Timothy is consistent with his desire to remake the real world.
In “Projection,” a small-town film projectionist falls for a bored college student. Monica soon realizes that Philip is a convenient screen for her real problems. His plan for a wild night with plastic explosives shocks her: “No one actually did such horrible, stupid things.” Nye’s collection reveals what happens when characters actually do make such unlikely decisions: momentary choices that derail established lives. In “A Fully Imagined World,” Kyle has a chance encounter with a former lover while taking his daughter to Cincinnati’s Natural History Museum. Nine years removed, the memory of their one-night stand “had become a physical ache, a dream he could call up and see and touch.” Serena, still beautiful, does not remember Kyle. Disappointed, he sulks, and loses track of his daughter. She is found, but the feeling hits the reader with equal force: how often do we put so much capital in a transient memory?
Henry, the narrator of “Keep,” struggles to understand what control even means. After his mother’s death, Henry allows his mentally ill, thirty-seven-year-old brother, Kevin, to live at his home. His wife hates the idea, and does not hide her displeasure. Nye holds the reader’s emotions in his literary hands in the story’s penultimate act, as Kevin makes a rash decision that puts more than only his life at risk. The decision to end a story collection with the longest tale—“Keep” is a novella—is not a new one, but Nye is a meticulous storyteller, so the reader was already hoping for an extended tale. Yet completion of “Keep” will likely send readers back through the entirety of Strategies Against Extinction to savor Nye’s glimpses of what “is raw, jarring, unexpected, sometimes trashy, sometimes luminous,” as the collection’s epigraph, from Joyce Carol Oates, defines realism. A good short-story collection will leave a reader with a handful of narratives worth remembering; a great short-story collection, like Nye’s, will leave a reader with lives worth remembering.
Charles Martin. Signs & Wonders. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 96 pp. $30.00, cloth.
The poems in Charles Martin’s new collection, Signs & Wonders, speak with the voice of a tipsy father-in-law—jolly, solicitous, and prone to oddly charming rants. It’s a pleasant way to squander a few hours. Martin, an award-winning translator and poet, has indulged in a few of the privileges of renown without allowing himself the worst. How many tenured poets, primping their laurels, overflow volumes with joyless poem-slurry, intoning for all the captive strivers every memory, whinge, and bad dream over decades of a mutually humiliating dotage? Martin, at least, is not among them. Though he doesn’t mind the sound of his voice, he’s got manners enough to keep things entertaining.
He is unselfish in other ways as well. Of sixty-five pages, he dedicates twelve to translations or versions of other artists’ work, including a treatment of Ovid’s valediction to his Tristia: “Books are well made when fortune’s favor pours / down on their authors—as it won’t on yours.” His rendering of Pessoa’s much badly-translated “Autopsychography” is snappy and elegant, and his caption to Alfred Kubin’s painting “The Foreboding” makes the sort of puncture wound left only by good epigrams:
What dark form has awoken
over the sleeping village
in the early morning chill?
It will have no rest until
below lie only broken
bodies among the pillage.
Martin salts this collection of mostly longer poems with a handful of short pieces. Like most class clowns, he can be bashful about his feelings, but the jokes in Signs & Wonders are far less potent than the elegies. In avuncular poems like “Theory Victorious” and “Who Knows What’s Best?” Martin lets his whimsies grow lecturesome. In the latter, a deft trio of triolets, Martin’s accomplishment is not so much political insight as personal restraint. (In few other poems does he so palpably resist using broken or procrustean rhymes. Elsewhere one cringes to hear such rhymes as “Face the wall” with “Provisional- /ity,” “Heimat” with “I’m at,” and “poison” with “noose en- /circling.”) The poem is a riff on George W. Bush’s memorable declaration “I am the decider and I decide what’s best.” Martin presents this claim as not just petulant but insidious, with mentions of bombings, torture, and imprisonment. Although the subject matter is serious, the poem’s real meaning—as with most political poetry today—is the poet’s own cleverness. Quips such as “The ones we bomb to liberate / have really got an attitude” provoke no feeling and permit no discovery.
The poems of this sort, though, are blessedly few. Delightful as Martin’s wit can be, his poems are most accomplished when he forgets he’s holding forth. In the translations, he allows the original speakers to opine while doing his own work quietly. The charge thus conducted is usually greater than when Martin tries to generate his own. And in odd moments, between laughter and punch-line, he lets the raised eyebrow drop. The sonnet “To Himself,” glows with skill but never dazzles. No syntactical mousetraps snap. The feminine endings nod with uncertainty fitting in a poem about the lives we fail to live:
Those other lives, our creations,
Weightless themselves, oppress us until we falter;
So, weakened by their effortless evasions,
We learn this late that the only way to alter
That situation is to leave off pursuing,
And try to begin to do what we are doing.
Martin finds stillness again in the lee of the second section with “The Twentieth Century in Photographs.” That era’s unsurpassed crimes have inspired many a poet to set in verse his mediocre passion. But in the sober quatrains of this poem, Martin performs something like ekphrasis, examining the official documents of one atrocity. He treats his subjects with care and mostly refrains from interpretation. Instead he names what can’t be said:
Impossible to read
These inexpressive faces and recover
The thoughts of those who have been so long dead,
Who died, in fact, before the photographer
Had time to fix them in his clear solution.
Martin’s best stuff comes like the famous lines from old verse dramas, in moments of digression. Many poems in Signs & Wonders ramble over several pages, and though they have their swamps and forests, some open—if only briefly—onto clearings of surprising grace. “East Side, West Side,” a two-part poem in loose alcaics and sapphics, wanders for quite a while through descriptions of art and posture before producing a handful of exquisite stanzas, near but not quite at the end. These lines alone don’t add up to a poem, and they probably couldn’t have come without the rest. Maybe this is all right. Poetry is a tradition of surviving fragments. Almost all poems, good or otherwise, get obliterated. For a poet like Martin, who’s spent decades with antiquity’s splendid leftovers, the goal is not to write no bad lines, but rather to write a few that might be worthy of the ages. His subject is the ample, if provisional, world of daily life:
Yet it’s elegiac, this summer party,
for, though the (mostly) young are clearly taken
with one another and their situation,
none has yet noticed
how very cool the colors of the room are
in the fading light, and how the wind that’s just
stirred the lacy curtains has somehow also
lengthened the shadows.
All too soon, that moment of watches glanced at,
looks exchanged; of thanking the host and hostess,
as with a show of genuine reluctance
guests make their exit.
Joe Oestreich. Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2012. 304 pp. $16.95, paper.
Joe Oestreich begins his new rock memoir Hitless Wonder with the lesson of waiting: “Wait to get noticed. Wait to get signed. Wait to get famous.” By the end of the book, however, “waiting” for Oestreich and his band Watershed takes on a different finish. As a rock memoir, Hitless Wonder rubs shoulders with rockumentaries like Anvil! The Story of Anvil and even Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. However, Hitless Wonder plunges headlong into the ultra-gritty physical and mental terrains that come with building and sustaining a rock band primarily fueled by intangible rewards. Watershed’s doggedly loyal “superfans” often travel long distances for a show, and Oestreich never underestimates the motivating power of “drinking a lot and sleeping late and wallowing in the kind of behavior that’s frowned upon in everyday life.”
Hitless Wonder pulls back the curtain on Watershed’s struggles with everything from hunger, hangovers, and manhandling amps to long-distance relationships, negotiating record deals, and the knotty dynamics of touring into middle-age. Oestreich toggles between self-deprecating humor and transparency as he records his transition from a young, ambitious singer and bass player to an equally driven but older veteran of Watershed: “I wanted to look like Tom Petersson on the Cheap Trick In Color album cover: all hair and aviator glasses on a Fatboy chopper. But locked in the bathroom, armed with two mirrors so I could measure the full 360-degrees of my male-pattern baldness, I looked like Phil fucking Collins.” But while Oestreich jokingly longs for a rock-and-roll exterior, he also lets us see the internal workings of his ego. Standing on the streets of Manhattan after cutting a deal with Epic Records, Oestreich reflects on his desire for stardom:
I was momentarily hit with the same jealousy that had spiked the last three years as Colin, Biggie, Herb, and I watched our friends graduate from college to adult-size paychecks. My insides tightened. My mental defenses stiffened, constricting a layer of armor that shielded my ego from the sight of other people’s success. I wanted to fire back at those Brothers Brooks, at those Taylors Ann – to shout into the Manhattan morning, Listen up, you Nouveau-Yorker yuppie fucks. You should all be jealous of me.
But Oestreich undergoes a number of transformations throughout Hitless Wonder. In the bathroom of a Toledo club called Frankie’s, Oestreich confronts the reality of aging alongside an ever-morphing music scene when he recalls having Wallflower Child tattooed on his shoulder. Wallflower Child, a popular song written by Oestreich, acts as an important line to separate his style from Colin’s, Watershed’s other singer and Oestreich’s lifelong friend. However, as Oestreich ages, he looks into the mirror and sees a distorted version of his past and rock and roll: “The tattoo has faded in the sixteen years since Speck inked it, and the letters have gone blurry. It looks like it says CAULIFLOWER CHILI […] Over the sink someone has written WATERSHED ROCKS! Underneath, somebody else—surely one of the emo kids—has responded with, WHAT IS ROCK?”
Questions about Watershed’s future linger as Oestreich’s transition into writing collides with the tour near the end of the memoir. Oestreich continually explores his motivations for continuing to play in a band increasingly faced with small-scale shows, new waves of music built on “bleeping” and “blooping,” and his burgeoning career as a writer and professor. After abandoning university life as an undergraduate to pursue music, Oestreich later returns to school to expand his creativity and studio energy into an MFA in creative writing and a teaching position at Coastal Carolina University. Compared to a lifestyle of touring and performing on stage, the institutional qualities of a professorship seemingly stand in opposition to Oestreich’s identity as a musician: office hours, meetings, lectures, and conferences. And yet, we see traits of a writer and professor in Oestreich during Watershed’s recording sessions. The studio becomes a classroom where Oestreich learns to edit, to give and accept constructive criticism, and to patiently pick apart songs like an essay in order to rebuild them stronger.
By the end of Hitless Wonder, success becomes difficult to measure, and instead of waiting to get noticed, signed, and famous, Watershed relaxes into the next opportunity to pile into the van one more time and play to a loyal following. The reportage alone keeps the memoir moving steadily along through the entertaining and unpredictable gauntlet of rock and roll. Through Oestreich, we experience the unease of sleeping on the floor of a speeding van, knowing a sudden stop will result in decapitation by guitar amp. We share the thrill of big-time music producers ordering the entire left side of a menu in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. We feel the frustration of broken-down vans, unpaid shows, tightfisted bartenders, disinterested record execs, and crowds who protest by throwing batteries. We relive the experiences of too many PBRs and picking at deli trays. We wait with Watershed as fans chant “Wa-ter-shed!” And we weigh the significance of playing one crowded arena versus several modest clubs and dive bars, questioning alongside Oestreich: Is it worth it? Band members and ex-band members will surely find familiar ground in Hitless Wonder, but the memoir offers much more than minor league rock. Oestreich layers in family, his youth in the suburbs, the bond between Watershed’s members, and his relationship with his wife from day one, all while grappling with success, disappointment, and reconciling the two creative worlds of music and writing.