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The black-suited ministers that populate this free PDF chapbook have their “crossword-puzzle God / figured out and written with ink.” Theirs is a religion of certainty and bigotry, a religion of “Hate, / a mosquito spray fog,” that leaves us “all coughing / asthmatics,” in a world where “the ambulance always late.”
The “Fitting Parts” of the title are explained by yet another of these sinister ministers in terms of divine design: “God didn’t intend / homosexuals because / our parts don’t fit.” The hatred, not the stupidity, is what’s focused on here. Pobo rages against the dehumanization of homosexuals. As he writes, one certain people “define me / as a lifestyle choice– / the rest comes easily.” Indeed, the real threat, as Pobo sees it, is in parents who “strap down / their kid’s brain…so the kid grows up / to be like them, / flat, / hateful– / anxious.”
These poems are “speaking out” and expressing something of the human reality of those who feel their existence disregarded by the world of black-suited ministers. Yet there are moments of awe and humor–appreciations of Sappho and Whitman, musings on cocks stalking men in dreams–amidst the anger. And Pobo tries here to voice an alternative to, for instance, the path taken by one character, whose situations expresses the stakes in play for this slim book:
Steve turned himself into a lie
to satisfy them, hoped to die,
hoping his death could stop the threat
of violence. He hid so well,
but felt that everyone could tell.
McIntyre shuttles us off to other planets, leads us through retellings of fairy tales, plops us into petri dishes, and conceals us at the edges of sacrificial ceremonies. This free PDF chapbook, while scattered in its subject matter, relays scenes of horror that, for all their variety, have a certain similarity. Tentacles uncoiling through the salty fog, the hiss of static on a dead station, apocalypse in general, with all the trimmings–McIntyre offers all this and more, and as some readers will appreciate the faint trace of diluted Lovecraft, others will admire the book’s engagement with traditional form:
the worlds we try not to see
the veil is so thin
Many readers, alas, will find the writing shoddy and the collection incoherently arranged, a patchwork of not-so-fresh corpse-bits that fails to convince. Here, for instance, is a representative sample, a stream of narration from the perspective of a lost and hungry child beholding a sight of wonder in the woods:
The house on the horizon looked unreal. Candy glazes sparkled in the growing sunlight. A puff of smoke emanated from a licorice chimney, and we knew that inside there would be warmth. We knew it might be a trap. Anything too good to be true usually is, after all. But, by that point, we did not care. We just wanted to be warm.
There’s little warmth or life here, though the “unreal” is given a fresh glaze in each poem.
Slam poet J. Bradley’s collection has the in-your-face pace and bullying egotism of the slam circuit. Blunt personifications and schoolyard similes abound. “Disappointment kneels,” for instance, likely to honor lines like “Your face looks like / a swine flu outbreak / in a small town.”
The poems here read like performance pieces, and, thus, one will need to read a little spittle and swagger into them, and discard the repeated reference to thesauruses, and maybe put the book down from time to time to take a breath and rally up enough sympathy to witness another amateur bare knuckle verbal beat-down. Consider a poem like “Upon Seeing Your Profile on MySpace…” which taunts “Your idea of a diet / is holding a digital camera / at a 45º angle.”
But if you take a deep enough breath between bouts, you might realize just how bare the knuckles are in this fight. As insults go, most folks prefer witty ones, for sure, but when you get to a poem like “On the Day of Our Wedding” and read “You looked like / the kind of princess / who needed poisoning” you just might catch a whiff of the real poison in play.
Bradley is more bruised than a bruiser, and in his poems he needs to own up to this fact and put his deep purples on display. It’s hard to care about the keyboards that “call 911” and “show bruised Delete keys / to the responding officer,” but it would be easy to care about the man pounding out poems on said boards–especially if he deletes a bit from his next collection.
Describing a hangover as a construction site is a nice warm-up exercise, but keep it private. Likewise, as to the question of how to “woo / a pterodactyl to bed,” well, pyrotechnics of words might work, or just a shot of homebrewed honesty. Dodging Traffic gathers together scraps of scuffles–one-two aphorisms (“What Makes a Man,” you ask? Bradley serves it to you raw, on a bumper sticker) and some too-obvious feigns (How is someone sleeping like Dresden during the firebombing? That seems a less relevant question than the one about seducing a gliding dinosaur). In his final piece, “The Poetry of J. Bradley, Abridged,” the narrator declares:
I will make a mask for sadness
out of the liner notes of my
The Cure collection so I can
skull fuck hope into its ocular nerve.
This is the voice from the gym, shadowboxing for the next slam, the same sort of character who “laughed all through Roots” and wants to write poems with the same sardonic reach. The guard up here is what’s throwing the fight the wrong way; Bradley needs to swing less, lean back, rope-a-dope, and bleed!
After a poem like “On the Day of Your Mastectomy,” which feels like a cop-out (“Enough asked / for a moment, silence”), it’s hard to expect more than bile and Bazooka Joe lyrics in something like “June MacGuff to Bristol Palin.” But here we have–maybe through the channeling of a different fictional voice, the film character instead of the man-at-the-microphone–something downright poignant, and laced with the very “hope” whose eyesight gets threatened a few dozen pages later.
Hidden among the hard jabs are some real flashes of sincerity, where the speaker isn’t ranting over an audience but speaking directly at some real “you,” talking about wedding vows or raising a son or even, in the improbable–but funny, sweet, self-deprecating and deep–“Doing It Norse Style,” wooing women. The take-away here (and the promise of Bradley’s poetry and this rough collection) is that hands must be trained to do something other than fight:
Until they wield bouquets
skillfully, you cannot spend
another Monday morning
counting coins of broken glass
cached beneath your skin.
That’s the wisdom of the bruised. No fine lace-work there, but it’s not without its beauty, its truth.
“That beautiful man Bukowski” is invoked in this volume of poems on the theme of work, his own poetry, according to a contributing author, “one of the few things that kept me going during those long and deadening hours” at a joyless job. Yet the inspiration of Bukowski as acne-scarred, working-class poet hangs over the book as a whole like the scent of sweat-saturated polyester coveralls. “While at work I go into the bathroom stall and hide,” another poem begins, or, as another poet laments in regard to an electronic time-clock, “If I can’t get / this clock to talk / I’ll be taking / a long walk.” “No back braces, no hydraulic lifts,” writes yet another, “just the promise of a ruptured disc.”
The contents of this book are are rough poetry, in the sense both of being typed or scrawled by calloused hands and in the sense that this little stapled volume has no pretensions to literary polish. “Make way for the labor poet,” the “Forword” (sic) declares: “I now have control, as I climb out of this hole,” and such sentiment–the act of poetry as therapy, as a means of catharsis, screaming against the injustices of the work-a-day world, characterizes the pieces that follow. Hence it is the flavor of Bukowski (much diluted from its original strength) that gives bite to these pages, not, say, the spirit of Rimbaud’s “what an age of hands!” with its critique of capitalism and attack upon the underlying cultural conceptions of labor.
The “works” here are not manifestos for reform, and they rarely extend any sympathy or understanding outside of the closed world of the authorial self. Henry Denander’s “All My Jobs,” for instance, is a list poem telling us about, well, all the jobs the poet (one can assume the narrative voice here is autobiographical) has worked. In another piece, “The Designated Underpaid Office Manager,” a faux job description penned by Patricia Carragon, we are told “Complaining Isn’t Professional!” as the satire screams its own complaint. Indeed, the world described by this book is a desperate one, with the release or refuge of writing as the only positive element in an otherwise utterly bleak existence. “Another day swallowed / by the wrinkled hand of / time and all that will / remain is this poem,” writes Wayne Mason in what is, ironically, as much an homage to the work of poetry as it is an expression of bitter mourning at the passage of time and the sacrifice of precious time to “work.”
“I would quit if / I could find another job with / the same benefits,” writes Luis Cuauhtemoc Berriozabal, adding later, that only “Because I need / to eat, because others count on / me, I stay in this pit.” Such is the sentiment of these pages. For some miserable laborers, hearing such feelings voiced by others may offer a sense of community and provide tools for future forays into poetry–certainly this is a democratic volume, embracing all who speak as poets. For other readers, however, the unending refrain of “How much longer can I continue to do this?” moaned by poem after poem, will quickly become, itself, a hard piece of work to get through.
“I was born eleven days before the Bicentennial, in Chicago, during a time when the country was going ga-ga about being American,” Ira Sukrungruang writes in this memoir, a collection of essays really, about being raised Thai in America and about the anxieties and lusts of childhood and adolescence, from school to neighborhood bruisers, videogames to porn. Young Sukrungruang longs to be “Ricky from Silver Spoons,” not only because of Ricky’s privileges but because of what that fictional rich kid did not have to endure: “Ricky didn’t have to speak Thai, didn’t have to sing the Thai National Anthem every morning or have to go to temple for Sunday school.” Yet Sukrungruang also longed to be a warrior for Buddha, to manifest the courage and strength of Iyala, the white elephant of myth for which one of the temple monks nicknames him. Such conflicts lead, inevitably, to confusion about religion and resentment for being the outsider, the one picked upon. “The more I learned, the more confused I became,” Sukrungruang writes; the line speaks both to the appeal of his subject (the rapidly swirling, terrifyingly deep waters of childhood experience) and to the sort of prose that characterizes this book. As a writer, Sukrungruang puts one foot in front of the other; he tells his story, and it is not a story without interest, but he does so without flourish or flare and, more damagingly, with what reads like a flinching away from deep and honest probing of the emotions involved.
As a child, for instance, Sukrungruang rides in a car with his parents past “two dogs in the middle of the median.” “One dog lay dead, the other walked in circles around its companion.” This is the sort of memory from which a writer should craft a scene of real poignancy and emotional pull. Instead, Sukrungruang plods on, sentence by sentence, distancing himself (so it seems) from the power of this image. He ends the essay with some musing on heaven, on how heavenly it would be if his parents were together forever, “laughing and loving each other,” which, while foreshadowing future events, rings here almost platitudinous, lacking the spark needed for readers to engage, viscerally, with Sukrungruang’s interior world. Likewise with the family crisis that follows, and with the first flowerings of sexuality, and even with a climactic instance of fighting back against neighborhood thugs: there is something missing in this memoir.
Perhaps the author is, ultimately, too willing to embrace the “sage advice, so simple it was Buddhist” he’s given by a non-Thai friend when he tells him of his father’s infidelity and his parent’s marital collapse: “Fuck it.” This sort of adolescent shrug comes to replace the moments of rage or the tears that, as a child, Sukrungruang was told to outgrow, and in this book it replaces the vulnerability that must necessarily mark true intimacy. The stories we have here (of the lost father as a golfer, or the kindly monk dispensing life advice, of his aunt’s connection to cooking) are all slightly sterilized. We witness children bickering and trading insults, we hear about a boy’s first encounters with porn, but these stories feel already once removed. The writer who, in the wake of childhood traumas, sought catharsis by writing “for three nights straight…with vigor and passion, adjectives begetting adjectives, adverbs piled upon adverbs. Buckets of blood and vilifying violence and dastardly death,” has, with this book, written a bloodless recollection of a childhood marked by what must have been great sadness.
In one of the book’s best scenes, young Sukrungruang is telling his best friend about a story he’s writing, a love story, influenced equally by the hair-band Warrant and Homer’s Odyssey. A group of teenage boys is lured into a cattle field by the singing of girls from Iowa, but “When they reached the Iowan girls who had high hair-sprayed hair and wore G-string bikinis, the song ended and the girls disappeared.” His friend asks what happens next, what do the boys do, and Sukrungruang responds, “They kill themselves… That what I imagined brokenhearted people do.” This, in the end, is perhaps the most poignant moment Talk Thai has to offer, the most tearful this dry book will allow itself to become. After, of course, Sukrungruang experiences several sorts of true heartbreak, but in this book, at least, he doesn’t write in such a way as to communicate it.