Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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This is not one of those guide books that tells you where Frank O’Hara lunched or where Dylan Thomas lurched and died. It is poems to and of America, written by poets who have traveled and tasted and seen and felt: “Every syllable a crossroads, they sang forth / a national anthem Mahabharatan in scale,” with plot twists involving Navy SEALS, voodoo, and the Cumberland Plateau. Various monuments loom and fade: the Mall of America, Wall Drug.
Our Vyasas, Buckley and Ott, show us that the pineapple is as regional as the Pall Mall, the mojito, or the chupacabra. They note that the strip club and adult novelty show is always advertised as being at the next exit. They tour the country, hungry, “circling the Cedars—Sinai until dawn” and contemplating “the devil-may-care Minneapolis / on a bender, or monk-warrior Saint Paul’s pious rants in Energy Park” giving serious consideration to the unique eating habits of those who pass through Texas via billboards and interstate and always, always automobiles.
On “40 mg of Ritalin,” they compose a ghazal to Coca-Cola in Georgia: “My waist loves the aspartame; my rum the lemon-lime boost.” On “road tar and Benzedrine,” they devour “Slim Jims and nacho-cheese corn chips,” Lovecraftian snacks. “You’ll notice ahead a slight displacement of history, a flutter of neon.” There’s John Denver. That’s Columbine High. The song on the radio is “codeine-‘n’-cough-syrup soulful.” The “AM/PM burgers [are] hockey pucks that taste / like your great-aunt’s leathery throat wattle. But the condiments / are free...”
Gorging on the gorgeous and grotesque, “the Monsanto mutant cicadas, chrysalises hung like lanterns,” “the hidden cache of Sears catalogs with undergarments circled.” There is at once a real sense of place here, and real skill for sketch-quick narrative, and real flare for language, all slow-roasted such that a single phrase can speak multitudes: “the hennaed // bouffant from Chattahoochee kept a peck of question in her fanny pack,” for instance. Here is a pitch-perfect piece of Seattle:
We rued the day when Mount St. Helen’s base-
less accusations belched across the streams
of pirate radio and dime bag joints,
the yellow moon and fingernail stains, grunge
flannel PJs purchased from out-of-stock
thrift marts, whom all for Kurt Cobain pine.
Here is part of their retake on a classic, in the form of “Thirteen Ways of Looking by a Black Bird”:
I have memorized the dark paths, the scarred paths on the backlip
of my eyelids as I slumber, fearing fire, poison. I dream of hollowing
out scarecrows, and legions of men spasming from pies with wings.
I yearn to turn talons into fingers and sea buckshot from barrel eyes.
And under all the neon, beneath the RV-friendly parking lots promising low price lawn and garden needs, a sense of ancient legend, warps its way. We hear of the “Mackinac Kraken, which wriggles its ten limps like Cthulhoid dill pickles / escaping a cloud-giant’s Vlasic jar.” We are told that “Niagara is a two-headed creature with eyes like curdled poutine, which keeps one set / of peepers eying Toronto, ever vigilant, and the other aimed at Buffalo.” Every page here could be quoted. You are wasting time reading a review, a novelty postcard with cartoony ciphers for all the things you could visit and see. Get out there and read this book instead.
Official John F. Buckley Web Site
Official Martin Ott Web Site
Official Brooklyn Arts Press Web Site