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.

A Glimpse of Life’s Interior

For years I’ve been studying the art of the chapbook. This research has not been a scientific process with a methodical plan. I just really like the idea of a small, tightly focused group of poems. Also, the meeting of form and content in the way of production also captures my attention and imagination.

The poems within a chapbook should have form a cohesive unit from start to finish. Also, each poem should stand on its own. Tony Hoagland’s Little Oceans is an excellent example of how to move the reader through a small collection of poems. Each poems leads into the next fluidly.

You have to pay close to attention to appriciate the transition between poems. For example, the poem “Playboy” starts out talking about the magazine of the same title. As a boy, this magazine ended up in his home and this poem discusses the possible relationship his mother had with the publication. It lived in her house and she had to see and deal with it everyday. It could have been a symbol of her shortcomings, her husband’s fixation on other “ideal” women, and the loss of her own sexuality and becoming invisible in the eyes of her husband.

The next poem, “The Loneliest Job in the World,” begins with the line, “As soon as you begin to ask Who Loves Me? / you are completely screwed.” At the end of “Playboy” we are left with a sense of fading identity and the loss of love, and the following poem picks up on this theme and takes it in a new direction. Subtle yet well-crafted transitions help these poems read like a linear narrative and this makes for an excellent book of poetry, rather than just a series of poems strung together and only the page numbers indicate progression.

I have spoken about the collection as a whole and its success as a book, but I haven’t discussed the individual poems. This small collection contains some of the best poems I’ve read by Hoagland yet (that’s no small feat). However, there are a few pieces that don’t appeal highly to me. Let’s the get the bad out of the way first.

Hoagland is masterful in the way that he creates a very specific setting in place as well as time. Hoagland often writes poems that are related to pop culture and contemporary society. He likes to play with the disposable elements of our culture and find the spiritual, exitensial crisis within them. But sometimes he goes too far. And this could just be me as I tend not to favor poems that lose their timelessness.

For example, “Poor Britney Spears,” explores the rise and fall of the pop star. He discusses how as a society we built her up to god-like status only to tear her down. In the end, we are left with an image of a monkey dancing for her candy and Hoagland’s resolution is, “Put on some clothes and go home, Sweetheart.” The weakest element of this poem is that it doesn’t paint a picture of a certain period of time; it’s stuck in a specific era. Ten or twenty years from now is someone really going to connect with the poem about a pop star (much less Spears)? I doubt it. And there aren’t any new observations about stardom or celebrity in our culture.

This poem is just a brief digression because I can’t say that the book is perfect. Now, that we’ve gotten the “bad” out of the way, let’s continue with the “good” about the individual poems.

The entire collection is worth reading if only for the poem, “Phyisician’s Assistant.” Again, Hoagland displays his ability to create a detailed setting from the first line of the poem:

Pity the young physician’s asssitant

sent to my mother’s hospital room

with no more than clipboard in her hand

– new on the job

The poem doesn’t focus solely on the assistant; it focuses on Hoagland’s sick, crazed mother. He paints a realistic, disturbing picture of his mother spewing obscenities at the hospital staff, looking like, “one of those places in the Old Testament/that heaven rained down scorpions upon/as a warning to the rest of us.” And the assistant is not an authority figure, rather she serves only as a witness to the decline and hostility of this failing patient. Needless to say, it’s a powerful piece.

Hoagland is a consistent poet who delivers excellent poems and Little Oceans is no exception. I’m sure this chapbook is a preview of a longer collection that is forthcoming, but as a small, well-structured cycle of poems, it works very well. Recommended, indeed.

Like Something Alive

I have been an avid reader of Louise Gluck for years. The first book of hers that grabbed my attention was Vita Nova. Since then I’ve read each consecutive book with a fervor that I possess for few poets. With each publication my relationship with Gluck deepened as I explored Meadowlands, The Seven Ages, and Averno. After reading each of these books, I went back and read her first four books and loved them. However, her latest book, A Village Life, has left me slightly cold.

What drew me to Gluck in the first place was the urgency in her poems, the sparse and necessary language, the striking images, and her almost-confessional tone. There was usually an element of danger in her poetry. That’s just the way I’m built: I prefer poetry that has these traits.

However, A Village Life, has almost none of these qualities. Even the dust jacket confesses, “the type of describing, supervising intelligence found in novels rather than poetry.” And it also mentions that this book deals more with suspension rather than suspense. I agree. And I’m not too jazzed about this new direction for Gluck.

Honestly, the narratives throughout the book are well-craft with a deep sense of place and character. But I can’t help but feel that there is nothing at stake in these poems. If this is Gluck’s intention, then she has succeeded. There is no sense of urgency in the actual stories and Gluck’s language has gone slack to a fault. For example, here are two lines from the poem, “Burning Leaves,”:

And then, for an hour or so, it’s really animated,

blazing away like something alive.

Maybe I’m jaded, but this just strikes me as a lazy description. And there are examples of this lackluster language scattered throughout the book.

This brings me to the titles. I’m a title guy. The title of a poem should serve as a doorway into the poem; not just a few words tacked above a body of text. It’s difficult to consistently craft awe-inspiring titles for each single poem, but it just seems like the titles here were literally an afterthought. Here a few examples of her one-word or two-word titles:

  • Twilight
  • Pastoral
  • Noon
  • Sunset
  • Dawn
  • First Snow
  • A Corridor
  • Fatigue
  • Bats
  • March
  • Harvest
  • Marriage

Cumulatively, the poems aren’t very tight, the language isn’t very interesting, and the titles are quite boring. Could I be more negative? Probably not. Now, here’s the good stuff.

You’re damned if you, you’re damned if you don’t. By this I mean, I’m glad that Gluck has decided to switch up her style (at least for this book) and not write the same poem over and over again. Kudos for effort. I usually enjoy when a poet goes off in a new direction, but sometimes it’s a direction in which I don’t care to follow. So, I fully encourage change and trying out new styles.

This is why I enjoyed reading this book because I was constantly comparing it to her other books. And I can see the marked difference and this I appreciate. There may be folks out there who haven’t liked Gluck’s work thus far but perhaps this book will win them over. Basically the opposite of me.

Of course, I haven’t washed my hands of Gluck. She is an amazing poet. One sub-par book doesn’t damage my image of her and I’m still a huge fan. So, I’ll just wait for the next book and perhaps that will be more up my alley. If it isn’t, I still have her previous eight books and that’s good enough for me. But I’ll still read her new work whenever it’s published.