Staff Picks 2014
Janice Worthen recommends
Jason McCall's book serves as a meet, mingle, and sometimes mangle for the hero, the sidekick, and the average Joe. His poems spring from many voices: heroes like Hercules, sidekicks like Patroclus, the general public, and the sidelined would-be hero. Heroes and sidekicks come from myth, comic book, and battle field; they swirl together "in the age of Twitter" but act only on command, property of and slave to the general public's imagination.
McCall's hero is not to be envied. He must rise above as needed, yet trapped as he is in this unheroic time, the hero is reduced to looking for a job, competing with other heroes, filling out employee applications, and matching skills to a job description. The hero is thus forced to become the average Joe while the average Joe dreams he is a hero.
While this back-and-forth fantasy unfolds, characters wait in the shadows. They are the disenfranchised members of society who have true potential to be heroes but are forced into the role of sidekick by those making the rules. Even if these potential heroes "stay in school and follow the rules," the best they can hope for is to be just "second-class superheroes."
McCall reveals the dualities and pluralities of our time in a way that is humorous, melancholic, and even self-deprecating. Sometimes his book reads like an employee manual or survival guide for the modern hero, who somehow finds it necessary to make ends meet. Other times, it serves as a stage for heroic and anti-heroic speeches.
Occasionally a single speaker steps out of the story and is able to see it in relation to the real world. What this speaker realizes is our epic stories are really "a mirror." Our only real power is "denial," and "you use that gift to make the world make-believe." Such power may harness superheroes but is no match for "the universe [that] remembers we weren't supposed to be anything more than dust."
The hero fantasies serve as escape but may also be the public's fatal flaw. People dream their lives away in the world of "make-believe" only to find their "heroes will turn/ to dust, and [they] will beg/ to know how [they] ever managed/ to become so small."
McCall leaves us wondering if, instead of the helpless and innocent public, we are instead the villain, the hero-breakers. We will do anything to keep our fantasies alive: "We cast nightmares/ to protect our dreams."
The world McCall presents is one in which the average Joe is his own worst enemy as well as the enemy of the heroes he calls forth and lets go at will. His poems put a hard edge on entertainment (those zombies might seem a little closer to home), yet he uses the power of imagination, of myth creation, to turn that mirror upon Earth Prime and society's fatal flaws. What is revealed is a place where potential heroes who actually can save humanity are cast aside and even established heroes get rejection letters and pink slips.
"Where are you tonight, my personal party?" asks author James Gendron in his first full-length book, Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). It's the poetry book of our generation, if only our generation liked poetry and reading. It's devastating and comic, each poem a reminder that everyone else is as twisted and lonely as you. It's also more than that, making paradoxical associations that most of us never think of: the afterlife with alcoholism or angel sweat with the odor of corpses. Gendron enters a consequence-free zone where language can be dumb and all the better for it. Transcendence rises out of the most banal moments and in the best of poetry makes it sing.
In the poem "Licking Your Pussy '04," Gendron writes, "I felt cilly (silly), having my picnic blanket fall/on so many skeletons from the Iraq war, which had recently begun at that time./I just want six days/to prove I'm not an animal." He makes the gentle fall of a picnic basket over skeletons seem like the most natural thing in the world, the kind of surrealism that is not heavy-handed but as light and airy as whipped butter. His voice is chatty and casual, which makes it easy to digest the internal and external wars raging throughout Sexual Boat.
The titles of eight of the book's poems are variations on Sexual Boat (Sex Boats). Inside the sexual boat are more sex boats, like a funhouse mirror that goes on and on forever. Gendron's prose connects love and sex to the U.S. military and burn victims and then to Pizza Nite and the wings of Christ. Everything is allusive and connected. He gets that intimate relationships are intrinsically tied to world politics, but also to the blinking lights of an ICU. One moment he's writing about how it's always December three feet from a bullet, the next he's hiring a witch to kill his lover's boyfriend.
Gendron's poems lack the egotism and stiff formalism that are turn-offs in a lot of contemporary poetry. It's evident he hasn't been affected by the M.F.A. writing programs that breed a safe, uniform style or a pretentious and false experimentalism. He's over being anything but Gendron, highs and lows included. He makes auto caricatures of himself, poking fun at his vulnerability. He embraces so-called ugly language, inserting pop culture references, Internet slang and made-up words-"graynbow" and "Wolfwater" being personal favorites-with the ease of a modern-day William Carlos Williams.
In "Shade" he writes: "I swear: when you leave me alone, every part of my body is having its own nightmare." His clean, micro-specific poems restore my faith in an art form that many have left for its oversentimentality, a slice of stale cake that has been left out too long. Some of his lines are brilliant in their simplicity: "Glass is a liquid actually. So earlier, when you said being around me was like eating glass, you really meant drinking." For all the overly careful writing of the literary world, much of it never really touches on uncensored human emotion. But that's not true in Gendron's case. He is obsessively concerned about the precision of his words, demanding that they convey something real.
Other lines reel with a surrealism that lends clarity rather than confusion: "I love you like an asshole/loves his best friend the sun./Is half your face his?/Turn it away./Is half your car his?/Sell it for cash./Love sews the faces of burn victims with moonlight and sexual hope/until they're perfect, gleaming/teeth in the Human Chandelier./It's a strange feeling, wanting/to kill someone." It's a brilliant summation of what it's like to be with someone. In a genre where the superfluous relationship poem reigns supreme, I get a love poem that I can believe in, finally.
Gendron aspires to be what rapper Ghostface calls the smart dumb cat. Instead of getting lost in the ether of lofty post-modern jargon, his readers get revelations about desire, car crashes, the Internet and isolation at parties. What Gendron deems "the ill-logic and deformed language" in Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) takes us on a journey through adulthood (eating anger and cancer scares included), the World Wide Web, and the dark crevices in between. When you finish it you will feel like, in Gendron's words, "the germs seen by the beautifulest person on the bus, who is never me," and that is just one of his many startling lines and insights that will shake off any preconceived notions about poetry. If only every poet applied the smart dumb cat philosophy, and with as much vision and skill as Gendron.