Humor in poetry, like a good comic, should come at you from many angles. At a reading, a purposeful pause after an unsettling line should elicit a perplexed guffaw; on the page, a strange but eerily true juxtaposition should startle you from your silent reading with a snort. That Anthony McCann titled his new collection I Heart Your Fate indicates a wry sense of humor from the start; McCann delivers on this impression, offering observations such as “Can organized body hair still be alive?” and “We’ve all stared, forlorn, at a disemboweled couch.”
But this is not a book of one-liners. A melancholy tone mellows these poems, so for every disemboweled couch (itself sort of melancholy in its hangdog humor) there are moments of canny reflection: “This world: so crowded with me-ghosts of me”; or, stark images with the power to gut (lines from Post Futurism(2)):
the city’s wild, northern rooms
filled with piercing light
like sterilized Containers
of Brooding Arctic Milk.
Good Silver Doves
in whirling squads
plunged into the roar
while out beyond
hills pale windows
paved the void.
McCann is also talented at reclamation. He takes over-poemed words such as ‘moon’ and ‘heart’ and ‘bird,’ bled of their meaning through overuse, and sings them back to the reader through bizarre position and repetition (lines from the title poem series):
The night is air travel – my heart seen from space
Dead car in the snow, stuffed with old brooms
Each now is a dot, a sentence – in place
I stack up my feelings like table-free rags
Tossing chairs from the roof – the snow in my hair
Or asleep in the tree in my little boy suit
Man-sized birds pass over the barn
So I crossed out the moon, the trees and the barn
That last line can be read as self-referential – as if McCann is purposefully moving through a laundry list of words and symbols struck meaningless, only to engulf them in a coating of the absurd. It’s not all absurdity, however. Birds, which wing through the poems of many poets, make frequent appearances in McCann’s collection as well, and sometimes hit a mark that I cannot describe as anything but beauty (lines from Omoa (Time of the Grackle)):
that falls now
from your mouth
becomes land or
food for birds.
This, despite the implication of Grackles as pests: they perch in the Omoa poem like spectres. In the poem Of The Mockingbird, McCann returns to wry observation, using the birds to slide in a dash of commentary:
They uncork their
across the wires:
the whole regal and bionic
jingle of the world.
The world’s jingle: as if there is one universal commercial that we all populate with our cacophony. That the sound of this idea would be both regal and bionic feels correct. That it might be played back to us through the mimicry of a mockingbird provides a weird mirror for all of our human pomp and noise.
TQO: I wanted to ask you about capturing thought process. The Instructions is written in first person, and it felt true to being in someone’s head. Did you have any strategies or ways of thinking about that?
AL: Gurion’s voice changed and developed as I wrote, and the novel is written as if it’s a document, so it’s a story that is aware of itself. It’s written as if it’s scripture, so that gave me permission to be more analytical. I tend to think [judging authenticity] is like third-level analysis. When you read shit that works, not to get all mystical, but take George Saunders’s story “Jon”—these are voices that don’t exist. He’s creating something that doesn’t exist, but they’re internally consistent, and you’re laughing. Images are created that pop. So you’re not like “This is inauthentic,” you’re like “This is fucking great!” Or that Wells Tower story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” It’s this Viking, and he’s narrating his Viking adventures, and that shit doesn’t exist, but it’s great. So if you work sentence to sentence, and you trust that what you’re writing is exciting, that authenticity question goes out the window, because what is authentic?
TQO: Well, it goes to believability. You’re right, you can break it down to the sentence level.
AL: Or even the paragraph level. Have you read any Stanley Elkin? That guy doesn’t write the way people actually talk. He’s brilliant—super-stylized, long-winded. But there’s something authentic there—it really sounds like a Borscht Belt comedian. At the same time a Borscht Belt comedian is a performer, and his narrator doesn’t sound like a comedian, but maybe fifty times greater.
TQO: Borscht Belt comedian? Is that a real thing?
AL: Yeah, you know, like a performer in the Catskills making corny jokes. Or like Barry Hannah in “Testimony of Pilot.” No one really talks that way; no one is quite that articulate.
Dani attended SLS 2011 in Montreal.
Dani was a finalist in the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars fiction competition, and has been offered a partial fellowship to attend one of their international conferences.
Dani’s review of the new story collection from Rachel Glaser can be found online at TriQuarterly.
Dani’s review of new poetry from Rosemurgy, Dobyns and Lantz can be found online at TriQuarterly.
Dani was awarded 2nd place in the 2010 Northwestern Magazine short fiction contest for her short story, Peppercorn (story and announcement here).
Interview with Stuart Dybek about judging the 2010 contest here.