Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook 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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We live amidst tailored streams, given the option to scroll past or publically declare our appreciation of, in aggregate, images and quips handpicked for us by various proprietary algorithms. In the process, we’re sold our identities along with the promise of fame as understood in terms of transitory marketing campaigns, promotions for products that are presented as also experiences, even feelings, which dynamic seems to elicit its own feelings, because sometimes a given product does make us feel something but sometimes it falls short, and, moreover, to think about feelings is a feeling in itself, almost like those stories of being out-of-body, gone astral and hovering above our physical self, looking down on the guy with the ice cream and thinking, is that a laugh, is he really laughing, is he just pretending to laugh, are those laugh-like motions a kind of façade, a performance for the purposes of setting the world at ease and skipping over precisely these sorts of questions? The pose begets skepticism; self-examination is, at best, the slow road to satisfaction.
Mike Young feels things, for commercials and what they endorse, for depth or shallowness of feeling as is generally felt or gets felt once feeling becomes the object of contemplation via that process which implies a distance from and numbness to feeling. He knows poetry needs sometimes to be sad, according to some schools of thought, and that fame is desirable, some times and in some ways, and also that death is either scary or real or coming soon or maybe all of the above. His poems here start with the aphoristic (“If you think everything’s rendition, you’ll never much experience,” or “To be present in the world doesn’t make you a present to the world.”) but then they quickly go effervescent, like a grade school science fair volcano, frothing over with coffee-and-hazelnut candy, the invention of beauty, co-dreaming, the immediacy of toast, lunchmeat and samosas, dancing fish.
Other poems start by asking hypothetical someones, characters or figments, voices in any case, distinct, “What’s the strongest thing you’ve ever felt?” a question the responses to which range all across the aisles of the 24-hour shopping world we live in, media-saturated, complete with soundtrack. “When Michael Jackson died, we were on the freeway.... Because what happened is the DJ broke into the son, he broke into the goddamn hook, to pass alone some conflicting reports” or “Strongest thing I ever felt was joy inside the soda store” or “Types ‘ecoli death’ into Google News. Some people eat turkey to sleep, right?” or “Every public bathroom is an opportunity for terror . . . Maybe the lock doesn’t work.”
Strong feelings, but isn’t that just a line from a song? Young writes at one point “My access to the information of your feelings is a spiritual fish hatchery,” and you can make what you want with that, though in another poem the words “I feel” are crossed out, which gives them, yes, a certain forceful feeling, maybe embarrassment, maybe anger, maybe even regret. Let’s say you listen to emo, but you don’t do it because you’re forced to, right? There’s an element of free will, consumer choice, laden—Young reminds us—with anxiety. “Existentialism is when the store stops carrying the cereal you buy every week because ‘no one ever buys that kind,’” he writes. Note that he didn’t say the cereal you like. Another poem begins, “Sometimes I really like those STAFF shirts. But sometimes I don’t,” reminding us that even that emotion, that commitment, can be transitory, and flagging, in the process, part of what the speakers of these poems find alternately attractive or irritating, a kind of remove, an irony or posture of irony, what I take to be, at least in this iteration, “sprezzatura” itself, that pose. Discussing (or talking around, in proximity to) “A Pop-Tarts restaurant [that] opened in / Times Square” and the related reality of “Pop-Tarts sushi,” Young says that the only kind of humor allowed in contemporary journalisms is “like a card trick you get in the mail.” Is that how the STAFF shirt works, or only sometimes? And how much time can we invest in that sort of humor if, as Young also reminds us, we’re not so young anymore, and we’re all going to die. This realization inspires its own, unique range of feelings. These include, as Young puts it, the feelings of “Well fuck. Fuck the relentless non-forgetting and the retold jokes. Especially fuck that feeling of promising yourself this is a feeling you’ve never felt and won’t be able to remember, edge of a new river, but which turns out to again be kitsch.”
At the same time, in these pages we hear “It’s OK if we all sing. / There is no next round,” which one might read as a slightly less wordy restatement of the same sentiment, or close enough. Not exactly bursting into song itself, the line holds to a sprezzatura, which does not necessarily rule out celebration but insists on self-criticism and restraint therein. You can feel, but try to keep it from turning out to be kitsch again, which is the uniting desire to this collection, that the new might stay new and not turn out to be an allusion to a referent chain, click bait or a marketing campaign for another lukewarm remake. Just one strong feeling, these poems plead, beneath their pose (“O to be confident of vision”), suspicious even as they shuffle through visions that can—at least in that moment before they too deteriorate under a gaze that projects onto what it sees as a similar pose of callous theatrics, recycled affect—seem fresh and true, to transcend all the overpriced convenience foods available in airports or the reruns of Double Dare or the soda flavored to remind you of coffee. Like, “Today I saw a young man eat some lettuce at a red light. / He was driving. He was multitasking.” It holds up for a minute, tentative, almost otherworldly. Then down it tumbles, and we’re back where we started, thinking about how it all makes us feel and feeling afraid of everything as a result.
Official Mike Young Web Site
Official Publishing Genius Press Web Site