Reviews | January 06, 2012
"That One Was the Oddest One": Weirdness in Contemporary American Poetry
- Dorothea Lasky, Black Life, Wave Books, 2010, 77 pp., $14 (paper).
- Arda Collins, It Is Daylight, Yale University Press, 2009, 93 pp., $16 (paper).
- Jason Bredle, Smiles of the Unstoppable, Magic Helicopter Press, 2011, 55 pp., $11.95 (paper).
Four poems into Dorothea Lasky’s 2010 collection Black Life, the reader is confronted with a couple of seemingly brazenly confessional companion pieces that serve as fair warning that this book is going to be a little different. The first, “Mike, I Had an Affair,” begins, “Mike, I had an affair / With Jakob Tushinea, the poet”; the second, “Jakob,” on the facing page, is a love poem addressed to that poet. The effect of the two poems next to each other is startling: the admission of the affair is arresting enough, especially as the speaker does not apologize or lament her transgression but instead describes her feelings about Jakob to poor Mike—and then comes the love poem to Jakob to pile on top of Mike while he is still (presumably) down.
Unless you are a shameless emotional voyeur, you cannot help but feel that you should not be privy to these poems. Maybe one, but not the two of them side by side! How weird it must be for Jakob and Mike to read these poems, you think, how weird that the poet is addressing these poems to them—even through the construct of a speaker, even if she happens to be making it all up. What adds to the conceptual weirdness of the poems is the weirdness of particular lines themselves, such as these from the close of “Mike, I Had an Affair”:
I am a great woman, I have the wiles
That make the poet
But I am also gentle
And when I kiss a man I really mean it
Have you felt this too, upon my kisses
That I gave to you in the nightsky
As your eyelashes hung over the moon?
Or were you too young to see it too,
My little feverish butterfly
“I am a great woman?” “I have the wiles that make the poet?” “My little feverish butterfly?”At this point in the collection you might be wondering about the poet: Who is this person?
This is a good moment to have when reading a poet. It means you are being wildly surprised, that the poet is violating accepted norms (of speech, behavior, thought) so dazzlingly that you begin to question where—as in, what planet—he or she comes from. Sadly, I do not have this moment often enough when reading contemporary poetry, though we supposedly live in a postmodern era in which anything goes. So much so-called “experimental” work strikes me as just as conventional as the most blandly “accessible” verse, relying on accepted norms of experimentation to mark its difference. What makes a poet truly different, I wish to argue, stems much more from the idiosyncratic ways in which his or her mind works—what occurs to that mind as poetry—than from how different the poet’s work is formally from any established conventions. This is how early Wallace Stevens can sound so weird, even today, in a “conventional” blank verse poem like “The Comedian as the Letter C”:
An eye most apt in gelatins and jupes,
Berries of villages, a barber’s eye,
An eye of land, of simple salad-beds,
Of honest quilts, the eye of Crispin, hung
On porpoises, instead of apricots,
And on silentious porpoises, whose snouts
Dibbled in waves that were mustachios,
Inscrutable hair in an inscrutable world.
One eats one paté, even of salt, quotha.
This almost sounds like nonsense verse. Stevens is using the same form seemingly exhausted by poets such as Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning before him and Yeats and Frost in his own time, but he sounds utterly different from any of them because of the imagery and phrasing that occur to him to use. Where does he get that fantastic “silentious porpoises, whose snouts / Dibbled in waves that were mustachios”? “Dibbled” and “mustachios” there are so weird and set Stevens apart.
A poet does not have to be weird, of course, to set him or herself apart. A poet does not have to think or imagine very differently from other people or use unconventional language in order to write memorable poetry; he or she simply has to write memorably. In fact, writing memorably is in some ways dependent on not thinking too differently from your readers, so they can recognize “[w]hat oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d,” as Pope so memorably defined wit. Wordsworth revolutionized English poetry by rejecting Pope’s wit as overly “poetic” and writing about subjects and in a language he thought closer to the “common” man.
But what a rare delight to encounter a poet who does think and write in weird ways. Weirdness in poetry is too often ignored, marginalized or even maligned, as when we designate a person to be avoided socially as “weird.” I propose we think of weirdness instead as a quality to be prized—as much as beauty, insight, power, wit, complexity, energy, economy or whatever other poetic asset you care to name. Much as I love late Stevens, I get a special charge from the Stevens of Harmonium, who is so much weirder than his laurelled elder, less concerned with writing beautifully or profoundly and more interested in pursuing what he calls his “idiosyncratic music.” This is the Stevens who can begin a short, serious poem like “Negation” with a silly “Hi!”; who can title a poem “Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs”; who can write a line like “Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.” He even makes a kind of aesthetic program out of his weirdness in “Jasmine’s Beautiful Thoughts Underneath the Willow,” opposing his own “idiosyncratic music” to the kind of “old, frizzled,” academic work that needs footnotes:
My titillations have no foot-notes
And their memorials are the phrases
Of idiosyncratic music.
The love that will not be transported
In an old, frizzled, flambeaued manner,
But muses on its eccentricity,
Is like a vivid apprehension
Of bliss beyond the mutes of plaster,
Or paper souvenirs of rapture,
Of bliss submerged beneath appearance,
In an interior ocean’s rocking
Of long, capricious fugues and chorals.
Stevens drives at something important here: he is not weird just to be weird. His weirdness is not for effect, a clamor for attention. The impetus lies in the opposite direction: away from the artificial world of outward representation, cluttered with “mutes of plaster” and “paper souvenirs,” toward the more authentic world of interiority—“an interior ocean’s rocking.” Stevens connects weirdness to lively, genuine, interior being, which affords a “vivid apprehension of bliss”—both perception and pleasure.
This connection helps to clarify what I mean by weirdness and distinguishes the contemporary poets I would like to discuss from poets who might be regarded as weird based on other associations with this term. The weirdness of poets like Dorothea Lasky, Arda Collins and Jason Bredle consists of a hyper-interiority that provides access to the “bliss” of more authentic being, an uncanny perceptual awareness of the self in the world. This awareness is what separates their poems from nonsense poems or those whose weirdness arises out of an unconscious, irrational space—i.e. surrealist works—or some kind of mental distortion that cuts the speaker off from the world. One example of the latter comes from Tao Lin’s 2006 collection you are a little bit happier than i am (Action Books), which makes a meal out of depression:
Fuck human beings. Right now I cut my face with a molar that I extracted from my own mouth with a nail clipper and I think it’s infecting so come decapitate me and I’ll vomit on your face.
This kind of weirdness makes me distrust the speaker and ultimately the poet, if there seems to be no meaningful separation between the two. But I also distrust the kind of weirdness generated by too much separation between poet and speaker, that seems cultivated or contrived, a fictive exercise rather than a way of being. Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s (Verse Press, 2000) is often hilariously, disquietingly weird, but the effect is broken—revealed as effect—whenever the poet’s academese breaks in and creates too much dissonance with the more prurient language of the speaker, as at the end of “Sept 10, 1996”:
I wanted to say today to my register-person that my penis was broad. “My dick is broad,” I would say, or “Do you understand how broad my cock is?” Maybe simply, “The breadth of my penis.” What’s the point? There are times when ambiguity is not a failure to tend to a specific concern, but rather, is an articulation of the limits of concern, without which we are certainly nobody.
What makes the weirdness of Dorothea Lasky’s poetry work, by contrast, is the extent to which she makes the reader believe the weirdness is not a contrivance but her real way of being in the world. In fact, her weirdness is a manifestation of just how “real” she is in the world, a world of too little feeling, overrun by artifice, convention, irony, cynicism. “I am only being real,” she pleads at the end of “I Hate Irony,” in response to those who assure her that she, too, is “always being ironic.” For a poet to claim she is “only being real” seems too naïve to believe, especially since that line sounds loaded with irony; but Black Life derives much of its force from just how convincingly Lasky drops the distance between poet and speaker, how she seems to speak without pretense directly to the reader, without much mediation or filter. “Have you ever read a book called AWE?” she writes at the beginning of one poem, in case the reader is wondering how much the speaker and poet overlap. “I have. I wrote it. That’s my book. / I wrote that book. I wrote that one.”
This kind of seemingly artless sincerity can make a reader very uneasy, especially when one is used to the cool, ironic surfaces of most contemporary poems. My initial reaction to the twin confessional of “Mike, I Had an Affair” and “Jakob” was to be turned off, thinking the poet was self-indulgent and maybe a little crazy. But those poems function as an important early test of the reader, breaking you in for the even weirder poems to come, such as “That One Was the Oddest One,” Lasky’s raunchy love letter to weirdness itself:
That Robbie Wood is so weird
He seriously makes me want to fuck his brains out
Oh fuckable man, why do you have to do and say such
Strange things? Why if they were only all so weird
I would fuck them all night, their dicks hanging out of their mouths
When I am done, little red mouths with no words
Instead no one is weird
They have muscles
I write these poems instead of sitting in a bed
Sweaty all day
With men who are truly fuckable
A poem like this makes you understand just how conservative and reticent most poems are, even openly erotic or confessional ones—how strong a sense of decorum hems in their thinking and speech. And slyly, the poem makes you understand just how conservative and reticent you are if you are turned off by Lasky’s weirdness, how lame and undesirable in your normality, so conventional with “muscles, brains, a heart,” able to “listen at times” but unable to tell “jokes about chameleons and armadillos / Like sweet Robbie Wood.”
Some readers may be just fine with conventionality and feel “That One Was the Oddest One” is not even a poem, that a poem should exercise more restraint and not simply confess whom the poet does and does not find “fuckable.” Taken by itself, “That One” is vulnerable to this criticism, as the poet seems to deliver an over-the-top performance for shock value, to get attention and laughs. But a patient reading of Black Life reveals that Lasky’s weirdness is not driven by a desire to get attention by separating herself from the world, but a function of her paying attention to the world, being so fully present in it. This attention, or presentness, takes on a demonic quality in her work; it is scary and transfixing at the same time, especially when turned toward an object of love, as in “Poem to My Ex-Husband”:
My heart will yearn for yours through all eternity
And you will never get away from me
I will haunt you even when I am dead
I will wear plastic horseshoes on my ghostly suit
They will be striped, multicolored
I will be protected from the sun
That blinds me from you
You will have no breath
That I do not take with you
You will have no movement that will not be my own
You will gesture and it will be my gesture
That guides, when words
Leave your mouth they will be my words
Your words are my words
I say them and they say you
Individually, none of the lines here is any better than the lyrics of a clichéd love song—you might think they could only work ironically. But the persistence of the speaker’s obsessive attention to the ex-husband takes on a cumulative, haunting force because of how the poem keeps defying the reader’s ironic expectations, keeps meaning exactly what the speaker is saying when there seems to be no way the poet can mean what she is saying. Can this really be the poet speaking sincerely through the speaker, directly addressing her real ex-husband, asking him to “be [hers] forever” even though he is “married now,” saying that she would “never disrupt [his] wife” in this obviously disruptive poem?
Well, the evidence of the rest of the poems in Black Life suggests that, yes, this can be, and what makes the book so compelling is how scary Lasky shows real being to be when the usual irony or any kind of distancing social convention is dropped. In “Ever Read a Book Called AWE?” she reports a conversation with her publisher that illustrates the difference between her own “I love you” and the more customary “I love you” heard in the world: “They said, / We will make your book. / I said, Really? I love you. / They said, We love you, too. / I said, Good then / I will love you forever. / They said, Great! And looked scared.” This is charming and funny, but Lasky offers a darker, more trenchant critique of the world’s “love” in “Black Night”:
They say that the people love me out there
I can’t imagine
What me soaring in the black night as just a thing
I know that when they might get close to my face
They would stop their love
Ghoul I am when you are close to me
As my niceness does never end
That is the surprise
That the kindness was not an affect, but a choice
And that kindness in its entirety is very freakish
And weird, the real kind
Lasky laments that real kindness comes across as “weird” in a world in which people love her as “just a thing” and expect the same sort of love in return, in which people are only used to kindness as an “affect.” She, for one, is “not scared to be,” as she announces to the reader in “I Love a Mathematician”; though real being is scary, so much so that she conceptualizes it as “black life” and personifies it as the devil in several poems, she succumbs to this “darkness” that is “all-encompassing” because “if we don’t, we never live,” as she writes at the end of “Black Night.”
But before you decide Dorothea Lasky is the one truly kind, loving, sincere being in the world, remember that she has “the wiles / That make the poet.” Remember that she can only exist on the page through representation. Though the poems in Black Life derive much of their humor and charm, even their strange hypnotic power from their seeming artlessness, their lack of distance between poet and speaker, the book as a whole would be much less interesting as art without the clues Lasky leaves to the reader that the speaker cannot always be trusted. As a direct counter to the self-portrait she builds up, through poems like “Black Night” and “Poem to My Ex-Husband,” of a scarily intense, present, sincere person who feels things deeply, especially love, Lasky offers these cautionary words in “I Am a Politician”:
I am a politician
I will be very nice to you
But when I turn around I will write the creepiest poems about you that have ever
So, is Lasky a “ghoul,” as she writes in “Black Night,” simply because she is truly kind while everyone else employs kindness as an “affect”—or is she just really creepy? Are these poems she writes “the creepiest” because they extend her kindness in an obsessively loving manner, or because they reveal that her kindness, too, is a front? In “Little More than a Player,” Lasky reveals her unloving, cynical, nasty side in speaking about men:
I find their gentleness annoying most of all
It is not so much that I am good at any part of loving them
It is just that I make them believe so fully that I will love them forever
That they rise into the baby kingdoms of themselves and do my bidding
I am a player
But that’s no crime
To go on mercilessly not loving anybody for all eternity
Or not believing in anything
Cause of what I can’t feel
This is funny, but the humor is ironic—three poems later the reader comes across “I Hate Irony” with its defiant distinction: “Humor is not irony.” So who is the real Dorothea Lasky? Who is this poet who claims she is “only being real”? The more you read this book, the less you know, and the scarier the idea of “being real” becomes.
Black Life gets better the scarier Lasky—as a being—becomes, the more she opens up a sense of herself as this “creepy thing [people] couldn’t handle / If they really saw deep into [her] eyes,” as she writes in “The Devil and the Infinite Night.” Somewhat paradoxically, this creepiness creates a “vivid apprehension of bliss,” an uneasiness or anxiety that is pleasurable, to interpret Stevens’s phrase in a different way. This bliss is similar to that induced by a great horror film such as The Shining, which Lasky cites as an aesthetic alternative to irony in “I Hate Irony.” The reader comes away from her poems, as from Kubrick’s film, with a more vivid sense of the dark otherness of being, the “infinite night” that is possible, and unknowable, in another human interior. This provides an instructive difference from the normative experience of pleasure when reading a lyric poem, in which the reader identifies with the speaker (and by extension the poet) and finds some correspondence with the sense of the world inscribed there.
Another young poet whose weirdness provides insight into the otherness of being is Arda Collins, whose debut collection It Is Daylight appeared in 2009 as winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize. But whereas Lasky creates a vivid sense of her otherness in relationship to other people, Collins explores how she is an other being to herself. For all of Lasky’s weirdness, she never speaks of being weird to herself. She knows who she is. Collins, conversely, does not know. In “The News,” Collins introduces the reader to the weird unknown who will be inhabiting her collection:
You don’t know what I’ve done in front of the mirror.
I’ve pulled my shorts up high like a thong. I’ve walked back and forth
doing little kicks and making faces. I’ve stopped, I’ve stared.
I try to get my mind around the sight of myself. I make a face.
Of great seriousness. I imagine that I’ve just received
a large and upsetting piece of news. Then I look into my eyes.
Can I guess what I am thinking? Can I tell you what it is?
Collins excels at capturing those moments, usually in an isolated space, when we feel the weirdness of interior being, feel other to ourselves. We have all had moments like the one described above, when we feel strangely disassociated from the figure staring back at us in the mirror. If Lasky emphasizes the social aspect of weirdness, Collins emphasizes this more existential aspect, what Freud would call the “uncanny.” More than any other poet I know, Collins sits in the uncanny, poem after poem documenting the experience of feeling foreign to oneself. In “Letter Poem #5” she writes: “In the night I saw myself in the mirror / as though I had Down’s syndrome, or a stroke, / wondered how I could still think, / where myself had gone to / to leave / behind this slack-faced person, / incogent with a heavy lip, / thinking with a limp.” In the title poem, the speaker calls her house from a pay phone “to check on the empty situation,” then reports when she gets home: “My house is quiet, / as though it isn’t mine / but was given to me / by something other than myself.” The most eerie description of self-alienation, though, occurs at the beginning of “April”:
It was hours before I sat down
with a bowl of soup, a soup
that I, myself made. I could not
decide which way to walk around
and approach the table
for the best outcome.
Morning was made up
of blather that sent me
to the outermost limits of slurping
on my fingers. Imagine,
trying to eat a soup without a spoon,
and all the time thinking
about the windows upstairs in the room
where I had sat working.
Can we even call this interiority? What is revelatory about Collins’s work is how literary she shows most depictions of interiority to be, how reliant on the romantic assumption that something is there to depict, some more meaningful thought or emotion, some greater clarity of being. Even a poet like Lasky, who runs the other way from artifice in her pursuit of “being real,” seems more traditionally “poetic,” in this regard, next to Collins. For Lasky, there is always something there in her human interior; what is scary, in fact, is just how much is there. But for Collins, what is scary is what is not there. For her, “personhood . . . is the same as the dark / inside a small bag or drawer,” as she writes in “Dawn.” The “I” of her poems does not inhabit space so much as the objects in that space inhabit her. From “Spring”:
I went out into the yard before dark
and saw last year’s rake on the lawn.
It was a cheap metal one
that tore up the old grass.
I did that for a while.
When I went back in the house,
the roast was burned black
and the bread was hard.
I sat on the couch and watched it get dark.
This is beyond plain speech. Beyond the mundane. Next to this, even the dry, plain speech of John Koethe’s meditations on the mundane sounds lush. One can imagine a student in workshop telling Collins to use more metaphor and crossing out “I did that for a while”—the most startling line in the poem for how vague it is, how little it tries to be poetry. Collins breaks all the rules of lively, lyrical writing by relying so heavily on forms of the verb “to be” and short declarative sentences while eschewing metaphor and descriptive detail almost completely. Somehow she makes poetry out of all this: “It was raining a little. / I wondered if I were outside / if I would get wet. / I was in the car. / I passed a school. / I didn’t really know where I was. / I had lived near here for a while” (“Garden Apartments”).
Collins’s poetry puts a new slant on Auden’s famous formulation that “poetry makes nothing happen”: it makes nothing happen, makes it dramatic. How does she do this? How does she make the dull hypnotic? In her foreword to It Is Daylight, Louise Glück points to how Collins “stays in [the] character” of her persona “like a great actor,” delivering “the electric excitement of a master performance conducted in a deliberately isolated space.” But I think what gives the book its mesmerizing effect is how Collins takes the reader into the weird space behind persona, describing how it feels to be something undefined, not a human being with an established face but not inanimate either, not nothing. Hers is a kind of pre-persona. In “With a Voice in Front of You” she shows the human figure isolated “Alone / on the couch in the daytime [saying] something aloud,” not with its “own voice that carries / through the living room, but a voice that comes from in front of [it].” In “Island” she writes, “You make a face / but you have no idea what / it is, and then you picture what face / you would make if you were someone / else.” She imagines a kind of hell where “you arrive at a small bungalow / with a thatched roof and bamboo frame” containing “every face you’ve ever made.”
But if this is hell, her heaven is not much better. “Heaven is a white Formica table,” she writes in “Heaven.” “Not what I expected, / but I’m not unsatisfied. / God still isn’t here. / I’m not even waiting. / Where would I be / trying to get to? It’s like I’m a person / without face parts.” Her heaven is no different from the unearthly “earth” she writes from in the other poems; it is simply a more perfectly contained interior, offering the speaker the relief of not having to make a face but not relieving her of the awareness of facedness, the memory of “what it was like / to use [her] eyes, / and the things [she] looked at.” All those negatives colliding in the lines above underscore Collins’s sense of being: you are neither there nor not there in her world, but not not there. Existence is a double negative. God, of course, is also not not there; “I didn’t know I had god,” Collins writes in “Parts of an Argument,” “until god was gradually not there over time.” Finding god, or heaven, might mean returning to not-thereness (“The sky seems to contain something that we are made out of”) or achieving a total thereness in the world (“I think heaven would have to do with acquiring knowledge like never before through interaction with the landscape and with other beings”), but Collins’s human being is afloat in an in-between space, a residue in the emptiness, so barely there she cannot even “feel abandoned” by God—but there enough to feel not abandoned. “You can’t feel abandoned by something that isn’t officially your province.”
What is officially the province of the human in Collins’s mind is this weird not-not-thereness. Only the human being—perhaps the better term for Collins would be human area—can experience existence like this. The alienated space the speaker of her poems inhabits should be familiar to readers as a postmodern—post-Beckettian?—American space, ahistorical, decentered, reproduced, the space of Midwestern garden apartments and interstates; but the degree to which her speaker is at a vacuumed remove is striking and creates that instructive, oddly appealing sense of otherness I spoke of earlier in regards to Lasky’s work. I am thinking in particular of the speaker of “Pool #3” who hides from the ice cream man “under the window curtains,” peeking “at a bit of grass and the street / under the small apples on the hems,” imagining taking a bite out of people like the bites pictured in the ice creams on the truck so she can “see all the swimming pools inside them.” This is thought as spectacle: you do not think with the poem as you do when you identify with the speaker so much as you stand back and marvel at what is thought there.
This kind of thought is the official province of the weird poets under discussion, and none generates more than Jason Bredle, whose third full-length collection, Smiles of the Unstoppable, was published by Magic Helicopter Press in 2011. Bredle has been doing this from the start: “For an appetizer, try the astronaut scrotum,” reads the first line of his first chapbook, A Twelve-Step Guide, published in 2004, maybe the weirdest line to launch a career in the history of poetry. And it does not mean anything for the reader to unpack; it simply dazzles, puts the raucous imagination of the poet on display. Bredle’s work shows how imaginatively impoverished most poets are by comparison, how little occurs to them to use as poetry. Take the opening of “Poem for Chewy” from his recent book:
Whenever my little Boyardee inside me says eat beefaroni
or eat pepperoni pizzaroli
or eat chili cheese dog twistaroni, I’m like,
up yours little Boyardee, I don’t have time for this idiocy
is how I sometimes interact
with my little Boyardee inside me
is something I once wrote,
then forgot I’d written,
then wrote again and experienced déjà vu.
You almost cannot keep up with this imaginative energy as a reader. Smiles of the Unstoppable is an apt title for Bredle’s new book because the poems themselves are unstoppable in their comic momentum, pitched forward from the poet’s wildly imagined openings. The poems do not seem written so much as unleashed. Take another typical opening, from “The Haunted Mansion”:
I was headed home after a day of really good sunbathing,
and, I don’t know, I took an alternate route,
and I ended up on the outskirts of town,
like, near the river,
down by the haunted mansion,
and I don’t know what came over me, but I was just like,
screw it, I’m going up to that haunted mansion,
and you know what,
I bet I find a real nice old lady in there
with a lot of cats who just happens to be misunderstood
but who bakes extraordinary chocolate pies…
If Lasky’s weirdness is a function of being more intensely there in the world than anyone else, and Collins’s a function of being not not there, Bredle’s is a function of being out there. He shows the imaginative orbit possible in another human interior, the entire elsewheres that are there. Lasky’s interior is an “infinite night,” dark and unknowable; Collins’s is like the “dark / inside a small bag or drawer,” negligible and mundane. Bredle’s interior is a funhouse. Instead of an infinite night, there is an infinite funhouse mirror effect to his consciousness that reflects the world back with dizzying depth and distortion. His favorite effect in Smiles is to begin with a funny thought or statement—such as the interaction with little Boyardee above—then pull back in subsequent lines to reveal a disorienting depth in the corridors of the mind behind it. He uses the effect so often it begins to serve as a paradigm for the way his mind works. A particularly funny example of this occurs in the first “Aubade”:
I wish I could harness all the energy we expend
trying to see celebrities naked, talking about celebrities naked
and masturbating to celebrities naked
to create another sun
to shine at night
and eliminate the notion of dawn
is the thought I kept having at the gallery
then later at the disco and even now
as we sit on your veranda
and talk about the kitten you loved when you were young,
the candidates for president
and the next time we may see each other.
Bredle breaks the rhetorical fourth wall of the poem by showing that the elaborate opening thought is not “spoken” by the speaker directly to the reader but recurring narratively in the mind of the speaker out in the world. Thus the reader is not confined to an interior space as with the speaker of Collins’s poems; you are only funneled into that space in order to be shot through into the world’s multiplicity, replete with galleries, discos, verandas, kittens, candidates for presidents and, of course, naked celebrities.
Getting lost in the funhouse of Bredle’s interiority serves as a catalyst for getting lost in the funhouse of the world; his weirdness more vividly reflects the world’s weirdness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Unsolved Mystery,” which begins by assembling a kind of cabinet of the world’s curiosities:
An elementary school teacher, a part time dog walker,
an organic farmer, an economist, a sexologist, a magician,
an amusement park planner,
a personal assistant to a beauty queen,
a retired radio announcer,
a cell biologist
and a minor league baseball umpire
listen to a man who masturbates
to photographs of women posing sexually with balloons
explain why another man is not the missing link
between the overturned patio furniture, the surveillance video
of the woman with the hamsters
and the murder of one of the most widely respected
restaurant critics in the valley.
None of the people or things listed here is particularly weird, with the obvious exception of the “man who masturbates / to photographs of women posing sexually with balloons”; but somehow, placed side by side, all of them take on a new weirdness—all seem part of the unsolved mystery of the world. Appropriately, the man who masturbates, the one who seems legitimately weird, is the authority figure; he acts as a stand-in for the customary weird “I” of Bredle’s poems (this is the only poem in the book not spoken by such a speaker). And his lesson is that no man, no one element of the multifarious world, can serve as the “missing link” connecting the other elements: he is only “one missing piece / in a series of missing pieces / which, as a whole, / create a missing link.”
This is cause for both sadness in Bredle’s mind—we are not going to solve the mystery—and celebration—the world is too full of variety to be understood. “I’m trapped in a world which begins in the middle and never ends,” he writes in “Caramel Apples,” a sentiment repeated throughout Smiles from the opening epigraph by J. M. Coetzee to the penultimate poem, “Carousel” (“I stare at trees / and try to understand . . . what event led me to this place / so that maybe I’ll find my way out”), and this sense of the world is similar to that conveyed by Collins; but what separates Bredle is his mixture of melancholy about being lost in this “middle” and his sense of adventure about it. His speaker gets lost on the outskirts of town near a haunted mansion and says, Screw it, and goes up, thinking he might find a “nice old lady in there / with a lot of cats . . . who bakes extraordinary chocolate pies”; Collins’s speaker would not go near that mansion, haunted enough by her own house. Bredle spells out his double attitude about the world in “Orange Crush”: “See, I was missing something, / which is why / I often panicked. / See, I was lost, / which is why / I often picnicked.” The hilarious opening of “Breadfruit” also epitomizes this attitude: “Sometimes I write my name on my underpants to remember who I am /and sometimes I write someone else’s name on my underpants / to forget who I am.” Bredle’s speaker might, like Collins’s, feel like a stranger to himself, so much so that he has to write his name on his underpants, but he also sees the imaginative opportunity in such a condition: “I can’t wait to go home, take off my underpants, / cross out my name and write Roger.”
If only more poets today would take off their underpants and write Roger—we would have more interesting poems. Of course some might begin a “project” of underwear persona poems called Roger, and then the poems would not be very interesting. “There’s a lot we have to do in this new century to make our world better and to make our world better for poets,” Lasky writes in her chapbook Poetry Is Not a Project. “Let’s start first by valuing poems over projects. When we do, we might begin to realize what about our cultivated world is still new, unique, and wild.” The weirdness of poets like Lasky, Collins and Bredle (and others such as Mary Ruefle whom I have discussed elsewhere) serves as an antidote for the professionalism of poets today who put the project before the poem, banking on clearly defined conceptual intentions to generate material—so as to keep publishing and secure jobs—and give their work academic currency, make it seem intellectually legitimate. But there is nothing “legitimate” about writing poetry; it has always been a weird activity, requiring the poet to exist in what Lasky (paraphrasing Keats) calls a “realm of uncertainty” so that “the grand external world . . . folds into the intense internal world of the individual.” Lasky, Collins, Bredle—each in their own way sits beautifully in that realm of uncertainty, pursuing their own idiosyncratic music without regard for academic approval, reminding us that both “the grand external world” and “the intense internal world of the individual” are indeed very weird places. And only when we recognize that weirdness do we see again what about them is “new, unique, and wild.”
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SEE THE ISSUE
34.4 (Winter 2011): "Weird"
Featuring work by Mia Alvar, Beth Cranwell Aplin, Monica Ferrell, Christa Fraser, Thomas Heise, Richie Hofmann, Luke Mogelson, Kent Nelson, and Thomas Swick… as well as a look at the life and work of Sarah Bernhardt and a conversation with China Miéville.
Nov 08 2019
Radical Research and the Scientific Method: Tracking a New Trajectory through Four Recent Poetry Collections
Bradfield, Elizabeth. Toward Antarctica. Boreal Books, 2019. 160 pp. $19.95, paper. Lee, Ed Bok. Mitochondrial Night. Coffee House Press, 2019. 88 pp. $16.95, paper. Wahmanholm, Claire. Wilder. Milkweed Editions, 2019.
Aug 05 2019
Gathering Places: The Stories of Six Women and the Worlds They Created
The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice, Judith Mackrell, Thames & Hudson, 2017, 408 pp., $34.95. Harcover The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High
Nov 27 2018
The End of the World as We Know It: Four Novels of Climate Change
Clade by James Bradley. Titan Books, 2015, 297 pp. $14.95 (paper). Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Graywolf Press, 2016, 164 pp. $16 (paper). The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan. Hogarth, 2016,