Face the Music, Even When It’s Just Noise

I am not the most qualified person to write this review (or rant, or whatever it is). This credibility deficiency doesn’t stem from my lack of published reviews or my absence from the faculty of a well-known collegiate institution.  Both of those are also obvious shortcomings as well. But the core reason I’m not qualified to wrote the review of Sherman Alexie’s latest book, Face, is because I didn’t finish it.

Or maybe I’m not up to the task because I just don’t get this book. Evidence of this: the reviews have been mostly favorable. For example, here is what Publisher’s Weekly said about the book  (June, 2009):

Brash, confrontational verse and prose have made Alexie the most famous, and the most controversial, Native American writer of his generation. Alexie (First Indian on the Moon), in this first book of poems since 2000, sometimes works in sonnets, rhymed couplets, short quatrains, even villanelles. The results are mixed and occasionally naïve (When I tell my wife about my adolescent rage/ She shrugs, rolls her eyes, and turns the page). More successful are his many experiments with footnotes and interpolated blocks of prose within poems, devices that let Alexie explore his self-consciousness, as he looks back on his childhood on the rez in Washington State, inward to his sex life and his happy marriage, and outward to public events, from the Clinton impeachment to Gonzaga University basketball. Alexie’s self-interruptions also permit flights of comedy, with homages to Richard Pryor and to the porn star Ron Jeremy. The humor, in turn, lets Alexie brace himself for his most serious subjects: his love for his son, the history of his people and the last illness and death of his father, a flawed but durable example of the manliness for which Alexie so often strives.

And Book List had this to say:

Alexie is not an overtly poetic poet. His tone is conversational, his language plain. But his high-beam insights are provoking, and his humor irreverent. It’s exciting to read Alexie in this more concentrated form, liberated from the demands of his spiky fiction, including the shape-shifting tale Flight (2007) and his National Book Award–winning young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). But his storytelling impulse is irrepressible. His poems have a narrative drive; he slips into prose and fringes his poetry with bemusing footnotes. Ironic and audacious, Alexie makes fun of himself, expresses love for his wife, remembers his father, and marvels over his sons. He writes of blood, mirth, anger,  patriotism, pretension, sex, the fruitful collision of cultures, and calcified ideas about what it means to be a Native American, a writer, a man, a human being. Skirmishes with insects and animals illuminate our conflicts over nature, and musings about the toll of creativity inspire poems about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Pryor. A bountiful, keen, and inspiriting collection.

Also, the reader reviews on Amazon average to 5.5 out of 6 stars. Even the casual readers appear to enjoy this collection. I wish Alexie all the best so I’m relieved to see that the book is being well received by the general public. But I am not one of this public.

I am an Alexie-fanatic. His poetry has inspired me for over a decade. I read First Indian On the Moon in 1996 and I’ve been hooked ever since. After that first taste I explored his other collections such One Stick Song and The Summer of Black Widows. I have read each of these books numerous times. Every time I read the poems in these collections I discovered something new, electrifying.

My reasons for returning to Alexie frequently are numerous. I have always found a sense of urgency in his poems. This urgency isn’t constituted of emergency or alarm, but rather the sense that what needs to be said in a certain poem needs to be said now and in the exact fashion in which it’s being said. In parallel to this feeling, Alexie has always felt to me that he is trying to expel demons in his poems, or trying to keep them at bay, or trying to lock them within the confines of the poem so they can’t run ramped any longer.  This is what brings me back to Alexie.

Alexie has also never shied away from difficult topics in his poems. Of course, Alexie is known for being a Native American writer, and rightly so, but it’s his honest depiction of this culture which gives his writing strength. He has written about alcoholism, child abuse, and other stern topics. In First Indian on the Moon he wrote a heartbreaking poem about his sister who died in a house fire. Even when exploring the harshest terrain, Alexie has done so in kindness and love.

This brings me to Face, Alexie’s new collection (of poems and prose). There are poems in this collection that ring true, and remind me why I’m an Alexie-fanatic, such as, “Avian Nights,” “Dangerous Astronomy,” and “The Sum of His Parts.” These poems are pretty damn good. But the ratio of good to not-so-good is quite low despite these exceptions.

The pieces in this collection read like journal entries. The writing strikes me as lazy and over-confident. It feels as if there is nothing at stake in these poems, which makes them difficult to engage with. And maybe this is just my unquenchable desire for drama in poems. What’s wrong with a poem that isn’t dripping with drama? There is nothing wrong with it all; but I just need to feel that the poem is coming from a place that makes sense to me.

Alexie says in the poem “Inappropriate”:  I will disprove the professorial contention/That a serious man is not supposed to be funny. If you’ve ever seen Alexie give a reading, he’s actually a very funny guy. But his humor doesn’t translate well to the page. I can see where Alexie is trying to be funny in this book. It’s painfully obvious in where he thinks the reader should be laughing out loud at his wit and sarcasm. I get it, but I don’t like it. Plain and simple.

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean I’m not down with Alexie any more. Not at all. He’s still one of my favorite poets. But not every writer can please me all the time, and I don’t expect them to. That is, unless you’re Nick Flynn, Bob Hickok or Simone Muench who can do no wrong in my eyes (so far).

Thus far, it seems like most of the reviews/rants I’ve written thus far on Thirsty Ocean lean toward the negative. I promise you, that won’t always be the case. In fact, I’m working my way through a marvelous book right now which I’ll tell you about soon. And I’m going to be exploring an excellent poem that recently appear in Poetry.

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