Writing on White Air
Three new poetry books.
January 10, 2006
Jan 10, 2006
9 Min read time
Three new poetry books.
Tupelo Press, $16.95 (paper)
The Life of a Hunter
University of Iowa, $16 (paper)
Body of the World
Ausable Press, $14 (paper)
Part of the fun of reading first books is discovering how each strikes the difficult balance between sincerity and wit, often in ways that afford their own peculiar pleasures. Many are sincere but lack the art to rise out of banality; others are too clever to allow for the vulnerabilities and risks on which good poems thrive. Three new first books test this balance—of them, only one manages to find a tenuous equilibrium, while the other two showcase the compelling possibilities of its failure.
Ander Monson’s Vacationland centers on a small Michigan town perpetually covered in snowdrifts. The speaker of these poems—and the speaker seems to be consistent throughout the book—sees this permanent winter as isolating and estranging the community, in addition to causing frequent snowmobile and car accidents, which partly explains the dominance of elegies in Vacationland. At first peculiar, the poet’s sustained elegiac engagement with everything, including loved ones and near strangers from high school, and even luggage and the weather, slowly and effectively infuses loss into the whole world, including the Detroit airport:
Everything is an airport, is stained
like an airport, has to be lived through
like an airport—
visible through the scrub blind and
clean, the air spiteful, luke-
warm, an operating room for travel and
The Detroit Metro E-gate wing
where the short-hop planes mass and
has had enough of loss.
Monson has a penchant for traditional forms, or at least invented forms that look traditional. Take, for example, “Astonish,” which teases out a description of the soft melting and crumbling of an asphalt road behind a grocery store into a meditation on human impermanence: “if what we / call the ground is hurtle, globe, then we are / breakneck, roller coaster gone, or famished / from lack of love, finishing & finished.” Here the compression and rhythm of the sonnet highlight Monson’s musical gifts and fuse his sensual language to thought. But Monson’s other forays into traditional forms are largely predictable and sometimes completely flat; one gets the sense that he can’t resist hammering any short lyric into 14 lines.
And yet he excels unlike any other young poet I can think of at using his own “found” forms. Any graduate of an American high school will immediately recognize and take delight in Monson’s ingenious deployment of the outline, the index, the answer key, the inventory, and the old SAT analogy to structure his work. While these forms, which compose roughly half of Vacationland, showcase the poet’s cleverness, they also forcefully reveal poetry’s function as an organizer of grief, a lyric lab report on what it means to grow up in middle-class America. There is something irresistible in these efforts, and yet they are, finally, wearying: the poet leaves us with nothing uncategorized, no detail unmentioned. The unfortunate result is that, at times, Monson’s very effort to elegize verges on trivializing that which he had set out to preserve and understand. Consider the concluding stanzas of “Vacationland,” one of three poems that share the book’s title:
We might as well be the kind of rock
that passes for rock on the radio up here,
meaning Foreigner and Journey and
that could be ever meaningful again
because it has been subsumed by soft-
crap-rock, classic-rock, by radio, by
modulated energy in air, by the tyranny
of awful playlists and shitty DJs
and no hope of getting a decent song
played for us to be indifferent to at
We are what is left. We are drift.
I guess this is a sort of manifesto.
Despite Monson’s strong grasp of the venerated communal and poetic functions of elegy, getting worked up about bad radio hardly qualifies as mourning. Monson’s talent is voluminous, but there is a sheepishness to his ambition, and, in the end, his wit eclipses his more urgent subject matter.
In The Life of a Hunter, Michelle Robinson introduces us to a speaker who seems half herself, half an alien persona. This hybrid voice deploys cinematic and literary conventions but is also capable of lyrical twists and double-entendre-laden musings. Although some poems in the book contain clearly drawn characters, often various voices bleed together, as in “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” which begins with a speaker in a restaurant who wants “to pull out a machine gun and hose down / the place” and continues:
We piled into the Buick and sped west. I
knew the fellow
was right close behind us. I played
dominoes with Little Buckle. . . .
When Little Buckle fell asleep, I read
the new Ashbery. His last few
have been forbiddingly academic. Works
(as all works do) begin to talk
about one another.
Robinson’s mistrust of an intemperate sincerity is everywhere evident; in “Pepper” she goes so far as to admonish us, “you want to scrape all the humor from this wound / and leave only frailty.” In its place, at least in several poems, is a disappearing-card, magic-trick cleverness that deliberately aims to delight and frustrate the reader. Take, for example, the poem “Keith,” which is about a guy named Nick:
Let me explain:
Here is when Nick leaves the
note in my pocket.
The note says Nick—the guy
from Vicki’s housewarming
The note means this: Nick was the name Nick gave when the
gave was a variable assignment for Nick.
Here there is a break in the pattern:
After this I will refer to Nick as Keith
And yet, despite Robinson’s warning, “Keith” never establishes a pattern to break. By the end of the poem, Robinson hints that Nick/Keith is actually William Shakespeare, leaving us to conclude that the very function of the poem is to upset our desire to read it as anything but unstable, if playful, text.
Robinson works with the whole of a poem’s rhetorical apparatus, frequently calling attention to titles and epigraphs. While some poems bear titles that strive for an expository excess (“If we are ‘it’ for one more minute the game will have become both boring and cruel”), many others are deliberately untitled (even some that include epigraphs). Two poems in the collection have the same title, “There Being Transfer,” and are almost identical, the second being a trimmed version of the first. Most mysterious of all, some poems have wandering titles that appear in capital letters in the middle of the poem. As in her play with personae, Robinson’s treatment of titles as poetic devices suggests that her aim is to create collisions by using mixed signals. In “Aberration,” sharp shifts in diction alert us to a conflicted tone, a frustration trying to be articulated:
Unpremeditated love centrifuged the
savant unleashed the coarse beast of adult
of breeding. The fucking idiot—he
hated the emotions that keep
Although lines such as these reveal Robinson’s ambivalence about poetic hijinks, she can’t seem to find a way beyond cleverness—a poetic style that allows her to be “easy” or sincere. Thus the poem’s concluding outcry:
Now I find it neither easy to be clever
nor clever to be easy. Some god-awful
This: an epigraph that cannot be
This passenger, who mocks his own
Robinson’s frequent references to passengers, narrators, and various “hunter” protagonists, as well as her allusions to film noir and to such detective-story conventions as the chase scene and the disposal of the body, hint at a deep structure within the book. But for all Robinson’s playful attention to the book’s organization, voices, titles, and epigraphs, The Life of a Hunter has a Dionysian spirit, lots of gorgeous and hilarious lines, and disappointingly few successful poems.
Of these three collections, Sam Taylor’s makes the greatest play for unabashed sincerity. The unifying theme of Body of the World is the interconnectedness of people, objects, and nature. Like Monson, Taylor writes poetry that aims to fulfill a communal function. But Taylor is concerned more particularly with our connections to the cosmic:
Yes, it’s possible you could walk up to
the pimply youth at Jiffy Lube sweeping
backward through the car lift before
and ask what time they open in the
and if you recognize in that moment
what the grease on his cheekbone is
as he says seven without turning his
or just because you have a car and need
your oil—even if you don’t remember
the ancestry of light—you will be talking
Taylor, though never artless, is not always able to persuade us that the world is as spiritually interconnected as he supposes. But what is interesting is how frequently his poetic sincerity is located in a perspective outside or beyond the speaker rather than in the assertions or confessions of a lyrical “I.” In several instances, the poet collapses distinctions between the self and the world by estranging the former while familiarizing or inhabiting the latter. At other times, elements of the outside world invade the speaker, as in one poem in which he asks himself, “Are you a city filled with streets that do not end / or sleep?” When this works, it works on a grand scale.
Body of the World, like many first books, has its slippery patches of indulgent or weak poems, but Taylor’s gift for poetic detail is tremendous, rendering the world so that it is simultaneously seen and understood, as in the opening of “Here in the Mountains”:
Here in the mountains, we remember
there are answers that do not reach us
in the city. Messages of wind, handed
down leaf to leaf across the hills
of the elders; messages that die
crossing the rivers of pavement,
the oblivious thunder of engines,
the quiet knives of the clocks.
Unlike Monson and Robinson, Taylor weaves powerful stories within the microcosm of his poems rather than relying on the overall structure of his book. Terrific narrative agility and lyrical syntax, the strongest devices in Taylor’s arsenal, enable this lyric self-reliance and account for why the most accomplished poems in this collection are the narratives. Aside from a brief mention of W.S. Merwin (see below) and a requisite (but dismal) “Sonnet in A Minor,” Body of the World forgoes the references to works of art and literary tradition typical of first books of poetry. This may be because, for Taylor, “No one speaks the words I need to know,” as the opening line of “The Lost World” laments. This poet’s project is to look for what is hidden and as yet unarticulated—to name the mysterious, constantly escaping world. And it is compelling to watch the gracious manner in which the poet assumes his role in “Next”:
In one of Barnes and Noble’s
windows, I was eating one of
applesauces and reading one of
poems and watching one of Shiva’s
sunsets and thinking one of Sam’s
thoughts about how I’ve come to accept
the writing on the white air,
that I am owned by this name,
a tight knot dragged through centuries
When Taylor ends the poem by paying the cashier, he steps forward “into the sunlight of her fluorescent gaze / and relish[es] the strange pollen / of a moment that is mine.” That funny but convincing transformation of a commercial moment is, like many of the moments in this book, a knockout.
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January 10, 2006
9 Min read time