The front matter of Tough Skin by Sarah Eaton reminds readers that BlazeVOX, the book’s publisher, specializes in “weird little books.” This certainly held true for the first two BlazeVOX titles I reviewed earlier this month (Angles of Disorder and Henri, Sophie, & the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound), and Tough Skin continues the trend. The collection begins with a series of pieces in which a time-traveling inventor explains why he is driven to torture one of his creations. Later, Eaton presents a series of musings on drunken uncles, hundred-year-old monkeys who use chopsticks, and a woman named Kip who longs to have an elephant’s trunk grafted onto her shoulder. The collection concludes with poems told from the points of view of a midwife, a candystriper, a chaperone, and a babysitter. Needless to say, none of these figures fits a standard mold. Rather, Eaton uses them to comment (as she does throughout the volume) on the complicated relationship between altruism and self-gratification. Both, it turns out, constitute two sides of the same coin.
If Zachary C. Bush’s Angles of Disorder read like a poetic version of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or Lost Highway, Tough Skin has the feel of the filmmaker’s Eraserhead — largely due to the proliferation of grotesquely deformed babies and quietly tormented adults. An admittedly strange book, this collection will especially appeal to fans of the bizarre and bloody.
In Angles of Disorder, Zachary C. Bush paints dreamlike portraits that read like a cross between bizarro fiction (e.g., Andersen Prunty’s The Beard) and the films of David Lynch. With respect to the latter comparison, it would be entirely appropriate to make brief film versions of Bush’s vignettes featuring strobe lights, red curtains, and backward-talking characters. For instance, in “The [Related] Parts of a Family,” a girl walks into a room after being away for a year only to find her father dissecting an accordion on the rug. The accordion, however, turns out not to be an accordion at all, but the girl’s uncle. Similarly odd scenes occur throughout the remainder of this volume, many featuring a recurring cast of characters, including the uncle who became an accordion. In addition, Bush offers a meditation on death: a poem titled “WHEN YOU ARE DEAD” repeats the lines, “You hear no echoes/WHEN YOU ARE DEAD” about two dozen times, the intended irony of which, of course, is that the sheer repetition of the line implies that echoes are all one hears when one is dead. In a somewhat less explicable poem titled “What Pain They Must Feel!” Bush repeats the line, “There are children trapped inside my face” thirty times, varying the number of exclamation points at the end of each line to signify a change in the emotional intensity of each iteration of the sentence.
Providing an explanation for all of this (sort of) is a poem titled “The Vortex/&Memory,” which, like Tom Holmes’ recent collection, Henri, Sophie, & the Heiratic Head of Ezra Pound, invokes Vorticism to shed light on the poet’s aesthetic sensibilities. In this long poem, Bush writes, “I wanted to/Burn all books” and, later, “I wanted to/Speak the language/Of the future — sign/Nonsensical symbols/–Nothing.” Within these parameters, Angles of Disorder is an unqualified success.
Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth opens (ironically) with a series of creation myths each more comically outlandish than the last. In one, the universe comes into existence when Larry Bird retires to his basement to build a series of increasingly tinier clocks. In another, the universe rises out of a rotting pig corpse. In another, we are told that, in the beginning, “there was a pen that drew itself into existence.” All told, Svalina presents 43 creation myths (each titled “Creation Myth”) before offering the thirteen-part destruction myth promised by the title. Perhaps predictably, the title of this final poem is “Destruction Myth.”
The effect of presenting so many creation myths is to underscore the arbitrary nature of our most cherished mythologies in general. Whether humanity evolved from a ghost (as Svalina posits in one poem) or the universe emerged from a tuba that wanted to play polka music (as he suggests in another), we’re all here now (the collection, taken as a whole, implies), and there’s no real point in asking where we came from (big picture-wise), or at least no point in taking the question too seriously (as religion and science tend to do), because the only thing we can be relatively sure of (as the final poem makes clear) is that everything will eventually come to an end. The good news, however, is that poets like Svalina can have fun mixing and matching the tropes of mythology with the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture to amuse and provoke an otherwise jaded world.
The last line of Daneen Wardrop’s first book of poems, The Odds of Being, puts the entire volume into perspective and effectively captures the spirit that drives most (if not all) poets to do what they do: “I want what is not tantamount.” In this case, the poet comes to her realization after seventeen attempts at capturing the essence of a pear. Together, these attempts amount to something akin to linguistic Cubism; the true essence or spirit of the pear begins to emerge only in the aggregate, for despite the fruit’s deceptive simplicity, conjuring it via the written word is no small task. For one thing, it’s impossible to discuss pears without invoking Carvaggio, or so the poem insists, which is to say that it’s also impossible to discuss a pear without discussing all of its attendant baggage. Which is also to say that we can’t discuss anything without dragging a whole host of linguistic skeletons out of the closet along with the words we’re using to discuss whatever it is we wanted to discuss in the first place.
A pear is not a pear, it turns out. Or, more accurately, the language we use to understand a pear, to convey the essence of a specific pear in a specific place in a specific moment in time, can only fall short of its task. Perhaps this is why the the poem’s narrator envies her infant daughter, whose pre-linguistic perspective equates to a kind of prelapsarian innocence: “She points to the pear,/presence without word for her./No cum, no phylum.” Yet as much as the mother/poet envies the daughter’s unmediated experience of the world around her, she also revels in the prospect of connecting with the child (and with the world at large as well), a possibility that hinges entirely on the very thing that separates her from the child. That is, language.
The poet’s ambivalence toward language is clear throughout The Odds of Being. It is both the means by which we connect and the obstacle that separates us. Rather than seeing this solely as a problem, Wardrop, like all of the best poets, revels in the opportunity to do beautiful and creative things with the stuff that separates the tantamount from the actual. That is, she builds wonderful, cloud-like bridges between both states, knowing full well that though the gap will never be closed, the attempt is what marks us as human.
First and foremost, Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex is a labor of love on the part of poet Tom Holmes. A historical novel in poems, Holmes’ collection follows the relationships between and among Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, his virginal and significantly older paramour, Sophie Brzeska, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis. At the center of these relationships is the so-called Hieratic Head, a primitive-looking bust of Pound sculpted by Gaudier-Brzeska at the height of his involvement in Vorticism. Spare, elegant, and haunting, the poems in this volume call out to each other like ghosts in the night — each struggling to explain the inexplicable, each verging on apology. To put it another way, the pieces read like the unconscious subtext of the works that inspired them, an echo of the complex lives that gave birth to the short-lived artistic movement and bore witness to its aftermath.
In some ways, the title of Carrie Shipers’ ABZ First Book Poetry Prize-winning collection may be somewhat misleading, for the impression one gets while reading her poetry is that there’s nothing ordinary about mourning. Indeed, throughout this haunting volume, the work of mourning allows for the most extraordinary of revelations about the relationship not only between the living and the dead, but of that between the past and present as well. And while Shipers concedes in poem after poem that the dead are always with us, their power over us is never as strong as we might guess: “They thought they’d have more courage, the power/to disrupt our crowded world. They thought/we’d pay more attention, be easier to anger/or dismay,” she writes in a poem titled “The Unseen Ghosts.” Elsewhere, she invokes both fictional and real-world spirits whose anguish lingers but whose influence over the living fades with each passing day: firearms heiress Sarah Winchester, victims of the 2006 Sago mine disaster, and Hank Williams, to name just a few. We live alongside the spirits of the past, Shipers insists on every page, and we all must, on occasion, mourn the dead. Yet the point of mourning, for Shipers, is ultimately to move on, to allow the dead to find their own peace while the living do the same. Reverent and, at times, chilling, Ordinary Mourning offers a poignant meditation on the razor’s edge that separates each moment as the present passes irrevocably into history.
The cover says it all, but I’ll say more. Mike Sasso writes in simple declarative sentences (for the most part) because that’s the best way to get a point across. Does he ask rhetorical questions? Sometimes. And he also makes the occasional typographical error. But that’s hardly the point. Or maybe it’s the whole point. Mistakes, errors, screwing up. The book is called Being Human, after all. Screwing up is what we do best — a theme Sasso riffs on throughout this volume of poetry. Topics like religion, marriage, education, racial discrimination — he touches on them all. And he does so, to borrow a phrase, in a voice without restraint. In a voice, moreover, that reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut. And George Carlin. Yet a voice that is ultimately his own… Honest, forthright, direct, and to the point.