In a preface to Selected Poems of Max Jacobs, William Kulik, the translator, quotes Jacobs on his technique, which involves “‘transplanting’ elements of reality and ‘situating’ them in novel relationships to one another by unforeseeable juxtapositions,” as one might encounter in a dream. Jacobs wasn’t interested in a mimetic art, but sought to write poetry that might dislodge us from our comfortable daily moorings, creating what he called “the little shock of doubt,” which he conceived as both a psychological and emotional reaction in the reader, but also a measure of sorts, a span between the poem and the reader’s expectations. Thus, the world as we know it is unmoored, or turned upside down, so that the reader is displaced from his or her collection of certainties. Though a history of magic realist and speculative writers is beyond the scope of this review, we have three new entrants to add to the pantheon—although of course magic realism/speculative writing is not the only technique these writers utilize, it does provide an interesting kinship among these three very different books.
Michael Bazzett, The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions)
The Interrogation is Michael Bazzett’s third book, a follow-up to Our Lands Are Not So Different and You Must Remember This, which won Milkweed’s Lindquist and Vennum Prize—he also published a translation of the Mayan epic The Popul Vuh. Darkly comic, sometimes macabre, Bazzett’s poems often set up an odd narrative situation—sometimes even absurd or surreal—and then twists this situation for comic or lyric effect. In the poem “In the Himalayas,” for example, the speaker climbs a mountain to speak with a guru who has the ability to levitate like “a plastic puck // riding its cushion of air / on an air hockey table / in a suburban basement….” The speaker seeks the wisdom of this guru—it turns out there’s a little club of these gurus atop this mountain—who offers semi-mystical observations: “Look to the moon, he said, / and learn that you will be / shaved down to nothing; // you will be skinned clean; / you will be eaten by sky / and become only darkness.” To this, the speaker replies with a deadpan “Okay,” and then inadvertently pushes this hunk of “butter in a warm pan” over the edge. The poem both sends up the wisdom of wise men, but also the shallowness of the “truth seekers” of the west, and the harm that their quests can inflict. Bazzett’s poems never fail to surprise on some level, and he is a master of the punch line. I don’t want to spoil any for you, but in the title poem, after a long exchange between the first person speaker and his double, the poem ends with the speaker remembering an old song as “Life is a joke best left unspoken.” These strange narratives also allow Bazzett to examine private and public psyches, as in “Early November” and “They Held It in Their Hands,” the latter of which details a sentient feather-stuffed machine with silverware for limbs, which seems to exist to kill people who transgress with their language: the reactions of both the first person speaker and the mob are examined in light of this gruesome practice. This book is bursting with strange and haunting stories—a telepathic heart, a performance artist who secretly deposits his genitals in a stranger’s shopping bag, a horse made of mud and grass, a man who volunteers to be choked by Miles Davis—sometimes made stranger by the repeated breaking of the poem’s fourth wall. And sometimes the uncanny is felt when the poems seem to be talking to each other, as when the titular character in “The Mechanic”—a poem constructed like the film Vantage Point, in which each of the four sections begin with the same moment, a mechanic closing the hood of a car and wiping his hands—quotes, or misquotes, actually, “The Fact,” the poem on the previous page (“The bronchial architecture of our breath / holds the memory of trees.” “The Mechanic”: “The bronchial / architecture of the forest laid bare…”).
Another pleasure of the book, aside from the numerous odd encounters and bizarre narratives, is Bazzett’s use of figurative language. “Other Names for Fire” stands out for this alchemy, a litany of metaphoric names suffused with Bazzett’s humor: “Cavedancer’s doppelganger,” “Naughty flower,” “Idiot’s lip gloss,” “Rust on meth.” “Confessions” describes another person’s tongue—yes, a tongue, “a fat pink comma”—showing up on the doorstep of the speaker for a visit. In “Lazarus,” the eponymous character is “pale and waxy as a grub,” with a stare that “settle[s] upon her like melting ice.” Even after Lazarus bathes, his mother can still smell death on him, “a slight rank sweetness, like an orchid / in its final days, feeding its bloom with / one white toe in the dark earth.” Bazzett personifies his original simile with the addition of that one white toe—which returns us, and the poem, to Lazarus in the dark earth. The poem concludes with two short, stark sentences: “Only / this was decay delayed. This was birth.” Yet it does not explore the possible implications of the orchid metaphor—what blooms in us, or beyond us, after we return to the earth? Or, read another way, what beauty is possible in us in light of mortality? I’m sure there are other implications. I did sometimes wish Bazzett pursued some of the questions his strange narratives and figurative language raise, but that wish was probably in part because of how delightfully unusual his work is—and I recognize too that at least some of the power of his poems depend upon ambiguity, and the unsaid. When he does pursue revelation, however, it’s often ferocious, as when the mob follows the flatulent killer robot in the aforementioned “They Held It in Their Hands,” and basks in the “white-hot sensation / of cleanliness” that the deaths of the offenders offer; the poem then twists towards definition: “Righteous anger is just rage / wearing a tracksuit. I want my anger to be warm / and naked as the day it first opened its eyes to the world.”
One thing I noticed about this collection is a willingness to reinvent himself. For example, the book offers several poems that I might define as pure lyrics such as “The Silence,” in which closely detailed observations of natural phenomena spark or arouse a change (sometimes an implied change) in the speaker’s emotional landscape. I think he’s more willing than in past collections to risk sentiment as well. “Island” is an elegy for an unnamed down and out drug addict who lived for years in an unnamed Midwest town (“a raving / antic figure half-enjoying how utterly fucked / up he still was on the pills weed whatever /else might feed a hungry seventeen years / harrowing a cornfield town…”), who the speaker knew thirty years ago. It was only on the second or third time through this elegy that I noticed the form—two sestets, the last one in slant-rhymed couplets, with a concluding couplet of four words (“how? // And why now?”)! What a sly sonnet! What an astonishing conclusion. I admired how the stresses in the alliterative “haunted half-pained foolish / laughter breaking loose” thunder out in a trochaic rush. I’d love to know the composition process behind this poem—if it began as a sonnet, or was shaped that way in redrafting, or if one day Bazzett just sat down and decided to reinvent the sonnet.
This collection has as many oddities as his past two, yet I think it’s a more daring book for the new terrain it maps, the new houses it haunts. As a reader, one certainly feels the shadows of Strand, Tate, and Simic cast across these pages, but Bazzett’s third book has a peculiarity, a humor, and an outlandishness all its own.
Eve Ewing, Electric Arches (Haymarket Books)
The title of Ewing’s collection comes from a moment buried in the poem “at the salon” near the book’s literal and figurative heart. The speaker sits at the hands of “Miss Annetta” who says “sorry baby / …as she pulls / my head by my hair,” imagining the pain of the beautifying process in a list that revises itself: “Soon I am in a house / no, I am in an ocean / no, I am plasma in the sun / …I am in the universe and it is my hair. / each strand arched electric and perfectly still / before my eyes, dancing, crooked, / arranged just so in the air / like the last humming chord of a song.” Ewing invokes this scene more than once in this collection, the hair of one woman in the hands of another, so that it becomes a kind of rite presented as both painful—something to be endured—and, not unrelated, as a means of intimacy between two women. The tableau of one woman handling another’s hair, in Ewing’s work, opens a pathway for the expression of both love and commiseration. This is especially poignant in “why you cannot touch my hair,” a list that proceeds by anaphoric metaphors (“my hair is a speakeasy. It’s not that no one can get in–it’s just that you don’t know the password”), culminating in the revelation that the prohibition on touching is not simply because of her individual right to share and withhold her body as she wishes, but paradoxically, because her body is already shared, genetically, with a family of others who have the same hair:
“my hair has a brother. I washed and conditioned and moisturized and combed and braided my hair’s brother in the kitchen sink when my hair’s brother was depressed. My hair’s brother has a daughter. My hair’s brother’s daughter is tenderheaded and I sing while I comb her, holding her at the roots, touching her forehead so gently and telling her I love her while she cries”
This is a history of shared hair, a history of touched hair—it is sacred, ritualized. This touching is not merely cosmetic—the pain of the brother’s and niece’s hair, in the hands of the speaker, serves to engage the deep, intangible suffering of the other person. What’s more, the pain at the site of the hair is pain en route to beauty, and in that way the image represents a kind of solace. It’s not unusual to find poems that explore the idea of physical intimacy as a means of engaging non-physical pain, but it is unusual to find that represented so convincingly and movingly in non-erotic relationships, as Ewing does.
As with the tableau of the hair, Ewing’s collection makes meaning by repeating certain titles and images that allow her to subtly, imaginatively sustain scrutiny. In the first section, notably titled “true stories,” we find a short series of three prose poems entitled “the first time [a re-telling],” “four boys on Ellis [a re-telling],” and “another time [a re-telling].” These poems catch the eye, because they begin in typeface but shift to longhand about halfway through. Together the poems act as a kind of coming of age told through experiences of racism: in the first, the speaker is “six years old,” in the second she is “getting into my car,” and finally she is “in Harvard Square, on my way to a meeting.” In the first, the young speaker has received a bicycle for her birthday and rides it “up and down the block,” remaining in view of her mother’s eyes. But one time an “old white lady” with a reputation for being unpredictably nice or mean screams at the young girl: “You little nigger! You almost hit me with that bike! Go back to your nigger Jesse Jackson neighborhood!” The speaker does what children do—she tells her mother—and at this moment the poem switches to handwriting, which is how the following appears on the page:
“She told me the flying bike should only be for weekends, but okay, I could use it just this once. I ran back out and the lady was still there. I flew up on my bike and started going around her in small, tight circles until she got very dizzy trying to watch me. Just as she was falling over I scooped her up with my giant net and flew her to the lake. I was going to drop her in the water but I felt bad so I left her on a rock and went home and had a paleta.”
This poem—”the first time [a re-telling]”—sets up the next two, which articulate a similar series of events in which the speaker is either witness or victim (and the poems suggest, I think, that the line between the two is blurred). Each time the speaker imagines a response, at which point the poem shifts to longhand. The effect is powerful and multiple: the representation of handwriting reminds the reader of the humanity of the narrating consciousness. But because Ewing uses this technique to signal a departure from reality, she manages to convey the truth that the black victim is free to respond only in her imagination, and only by means of a magical realism in which she can possess something like a flying bike with a net large enough to carry this mean old lady away. It’s profound and devastating. Art—the imagination—is the powerful route of her response. But she turns to it because the reality of her lived experience allows her none.
Tom C. Hunley, Here Lies (Stephen F. Austin State University Press)
Here Lies is one of the rarest beasts in the poetry world, especially in an age dominated by political rants and identity lyric poems—a collection that is funny, and what’s more, self-deprecating. This is not to suggest that the book isn’t also profound or moving—it certainly is. But it was Hunley’s humor that struck me on first read—what a breath of fresh air, in a field that takes itself very seriously—where most poets, for example, are eager to tell you about the prestigious MFA program they attended, Hunley boasts of a diploma from the “University of Longsuffering.” Almost every poem in this book dreams up a different way that Tom C. Hunley will die—in some, Hunley has already died, and so the poem is a kind of epitaph for him—in a plainspoken diction, with an often wry delivery, in an array of poetic forms. I thought immediately of César Vallejo’s poem “Black Stone on a White Stone,” in which the poet predicts—well, remembers—his death in Paris on a rainy afternoon far in the future. And a dreamy Vallejo-esque surrealism certainly halos some of these deaths: “…either way his head looks like / a deflated basketball // Imagine riding that far / into the nowhere dark / past all desire / even the desire to quit hurting…” (“And I Guess That I Just Don’t Know”). Those last three enjambments! The poem’s stranger, too, for having a Lou Reed line for a title, as if Reed were the presiding angel on the poem’s shoulder. This surrealism is another thread through the book—in one poem, Hunley’s grave produces honey (after the poet is stung to death); in another, the word help, which would have been Hunley’s last word, wanders the rooms of his body but cannot find his mouth; and in “III,” the wound that killed Hunley speaks: “People will say that I, a wound, killed Tom C. Hunley, / but his wounds filled his mouths with songs, / for what is the mouth but a wound / a red, round, open wound” (“III”).
Hunley’s deaths can also be quite beautiful—a man of faith, the Hunley who dies in the poem sometimes catches sight of eternity: “Dying, Tom C. Hunley had this smile / on his face, adopted orphan / seeing home for the first time” (“Death Means Going Home”). Sometimes this lovely afterlife is glimpsed or suggested by figurative language: “Now that he’s loosened his body’s hold on him the way a kite lets go of careless fingers…” (“Leaving”). The poems are humorous, yet haunting, and offer Hunley’s deaths alongside observations about his life, insights about the world, and an easy-going allusiveness (St. John of the Cross, the Kardashians, David Bowie, Modest Mouse, Harambe—who, of course, kills Hunley, then is shot, then has Hunley’s heart transplanted into his body) that feels contemporary. They’re tonally interesting as well: they balance Hunley’s hypothetical, often funny deaths with the gravitas of world-sorrow wrapped in a breezy pop culture bow: think Tom Waits crossed with, I don’t know, the Chainsmokers. The humor sometimes arrives in the style of death, sometimes in jokes within the poem itself (“Have you heard the one about squirrels / infesting houses of worship…”), and sometimes the humor is structural, as when the poet in “Leaving” wills his unfinished words to his students, when just a couple poems prior, a student failed to get the irony of the plane crash; failed to get it but didn’t care much that she didn’t get it. In real life, many students from Western Kentucky’s MFA program, where Hunley teaches, have gone on to be tremendously successful, so maybe things aren’t quite as grim as “Plane Irony” suggests. Like Bazzett’s, Hunley’s poems seem to talk to each other, as when a dying Hunley (who else!) hears the cicadas (“XIV”), and is remembered in another poem for writing beautifully about cicadas (“Tom’s Remembered as a Legendary Poet / Saint Like Orpheus or Francis of Assisi”), or in “Sonnet: Postage Stamps Mailed From the Other World,” which reference three—maybe four?—other poems in this collection.
I expected—expected with a little dread, I admit—the poems to try and out-do each other in the manner of the poet’s death, that there would be ever more outlandish deaths, and the collection would devolve into a Michael Bay movie. One of the risks of this book is that these hypothetical deaths would diminish the gravitas that our mortality demands, or that the poet would rely too heavily on ironic ends. There are certainly a few far-out ones, like “Plane Irony,” in which Tom C. Hunley perishes on a plane that Superman was trying to rescue—Supes also dies in the attempt, because of a load of Kryptonite in the cargo hold. And while there is irony in many of these deaths—in one, for example, he doesn’t choke to death on a fortune cookie that predicts he’ll choke to death on a fortune cookie—many of the deaths, in fact, occur within the frame of Hunley’s domestic life; many are quiet, and allow the poet to explore his memories, his regrets, but also what he’s grateful for, the consolations the world offers. And one of the delights of the collection is in Hunley’s small asides, and revelations, that these deaths uncover, or the arresting ideas the poems sometimes give off like sparks. “Sonnet: Postage Stamps Mailed From the Other World,” for example, has a particularly indelible one: that these stamps, the stamps of the dead, “bear pictures of the long-lost loved one of / The dazed recipients, the boys, the girls, / Who love the way the sunlight’s glinting off / Their furtive prayers that fumble for the light / But end up drowning in a freezing lake….” It’s an idea further pursued by “The Poem That Wonders Why,” in which the poems themselves are letters from the poet, stamped with the reader’s face. I don’t know another American poet—maybe Bazzett?—with ideas like that. The idea might have showed up on a page written by Calvino, perhaps, or certain eastern European poets.
Hunley has a songwriter’s ear for a memorable turn-of-phrase, and in particular, lines of recursive syntax in which the structure of the sentence emphasizes the irony. To return to one of the finest poems, “Leaving,” the poet wills everything in his life to others: “his chronic desire for touch he leaves in your hands…his claustrophobia he takes into his coffin / his night-worries go back to the night as his insomnia goes finally to sleep….” And one of my favorites, and one of the sweetest, from the same poem: “He leaves his recurring dream about being in a hobo in a tent to a hobo in a tent to whom he also leaves his ability to wake from the dream in his own bed under his own roof….” And speaking of sweet, some of these poems are love letters to the written word, to language, and to poetry. In “VI,” for instance, he dies in a library, “with dust in his lungs, / the taste of ink on his tongue / from poetry he’d been eating…,” and in “XIX,” is described as someone “who loved words so much / that he came back as a word / pressed against other words / in the pages of a closed book….”
I mentioned earlier that Hunley’s poems often reference each other—these poems, these different lives of Hunley’s, echo each other, and this structural device makes sense, in a book in which Hunley has, essentially, reinvented the self-portrait poem. Here Lies is a rollicking, big-hearted collection of poems, and its opening twenty-two section sequence deserves a special place in the history of the American long poem.
Chelsea Wagenaar is the 2018 winner of the Michael Waters Prize for her second collection, The Spinning Place (forthcoming 2019 from Southern Indiana Review Press). Her first collection, Mercy Spurs the Bone, was selected by Philip Levine for the Levine Prize. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas and a B.A. from the University of Virginia. Her work appears recently or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Cave Wall, Poetry Northwest, and Southern Review. She’s currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Valparaiso University.
Mark Wagenaar is the author of three prize-winning poetry books, most recently Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining, selected by Afaa Weaver for Red Hen Press’ Benjamin Saltman Prize. His fiction and poetry appear widely, including The New Yorker, Tin House, Southern Review, Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, Cincinnati Poetry Review, and River Styx, among many others. He is an assistant professor in English at Valparaiso University.