Guess Can Gallop (Heidi Lynn Staples, New Issues Press, 2004)
Every year another shelf of unreadable poetry comes off the presses, poetry by those who are more in love with the idea of being poets than they are with poetry. Some of us read it anyway because even pseudo poems are better than no poems. At the other end, sad, unscary verse inoculates a few more almost-readers against poetry.
And in between there are delightful books like Guess Can Gallop, which we could use a great many more of—under its feckless charm is a deeper feckless. It is feckless all the way. Or so it seems: anyone who’s tried to achieve that tone knows how difficult—and how pleasing—its appearance, just as you’re giving up, which is of course when language finally gets to do what it was trying to do until you got in the way. As for the reader, contemporary poetry seethes with conundrum and predicament, with the impossibilities of being, even as we are, well—as we are. When poetry manages to communicate that as awe rather than simply angst I am especially grateful.
Take, for instance, the opening of “Another Story with a Burning Yarn In It”:
Transcendence, meet Immanence. Immy, Trans. As deliciously Riesling a bit of verse as I’ve read lately on that Big Subject, it succeeds, as do others of these poems, on apparently nothing more than delirious invention by way of deletion:
behind which however ghosts a not-quite, but almost, inference to something dark and disquieting:
“Zero,” “none by none,” “worlds grew off,” “somebody,” “no documents inside”—while it makes no explicit gesture to 911, it’s hard not to hear ground zero in a poem about the grounding of self, its slippage, the “strange quadratics,” (as Karen Volkman has put it) of “none by none.” Into the ark they should go. But signs are “mad and broken,” and few will be saved.
Staples does not reach for this reading—the poem does. It is I think an important distinction. She skirts the unspeakable, deftly troping aphasia, amnesia and other highrollers of pomo as though it were after all just a giddy diddy worth dancing to, but let’s not take it too seriously. And yet? It isn’t only letters that are mad and broken, but “I//from what I understand.” With the grace characteristic of this collection, she adds: “I guess this is all/I can remember. This is it for the time being.”
I hope it is only for the time being. And while I don’t particularly need more villanelles, I’ll add “Wrestling with the Concrete” to those I’d keep. Though a little loud in places (“shimmers about sum thing”; elisions like “Somethings” and sudden Unexpected emphases) its teasing is tender (“The others joke that he is hard of Herring,”) in its portrait of a man “In prescription frames with nonprescription lenses/Canting into the wind of his own undoing.” Wisely, Staples leaves the first repeating line alone (“It is on the table. He isn’t used to it.”) and its simplicity achieves a poignancy devoid of sentimentality. This is much in any book; in a first book, it’s worth celebration.
Like other recent books I greeted with joy (among them Christine Hume’s Alaskaphrenia, James Wagner’s the false sun recordings, Jenny Boully’s The Body, Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse and The Sleep That Changed Everything) the best work in Guess Can Gallop belongs to experimental verse with body—tires spinning wildly over the edge but still got some road under. That road, though, isn’t concrete, as in the second appearance of “Wrestling with the Concrete,” where the lines mutate another abstraction away (its first line, “Somethings he forgets what is a Fish” becomes “Some kings he fare glints swap is a Filch” and now we’re in the skin trades). By the title’s third appearance late in the book, you hope the car’s a plane.
It is. This is poetry as Extreme Sport. Were it just about skiing past the “You Can Die” signs, who’d bother—those who go there mostly do die, the only epitaph another Darwin Award. But Staples is one of those who take the material of poetry to be, actually, poetry, rather than reportage, composers of a complex emotional music neither anecdotal nor explicitly political, very much alive and refusing to be depressed about it (“Literal of Apparition” will make you laugh out loud).
As a poet gleefully addicted to every kind of pun—or “paranomasia,” as Harryette Mullen once said in an interview, leaving out, thankfully, the related but distinct asteismus, equivoque and paragram, the latter of which has been especially seductive to writers (Nabokov called it “word golf”)—Staples mostly remembers how delicate an art it really is. Like farce. Like a soufflé. A very little misjudgment can turn the innuendo of scald behind “Hot scolds” into the nearly gratuitous “Hose that Jake Belt” (with its refrain, “That Joke be It,” though in fairness, even this nursery rhyme unfolds in delightfully unexpected ways). When that oblique rhyme on a cliché works—as it did so spectacularly in Mullen’s waymark book, Trimmings, as it does in the best hiphop—there are at least two ways of hearing at once, and one of them tends to undo the high seriousness of the other. When it fails, it risks turning into a knock-knock joke, or worse, let me get out my languey thang decoder ring, it was just here somewhere. And was it Frost who said, “Find out what you do best and then stop doing it”? Well, but he was a little cranky. Against this, I hope that Staples finds more and more things she can do with language and keeps doing them, because as of Guess Can Gallop, Staples, with an ear finely tuned to the exactly misheard, understands the music of the heart is strangely broken, and that’s about as close as language can get.
Deanne Lundin lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she co-directs the Work-in-Progress Reading Series at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, occasionally emcees at Shaman Drum Bookshop, and has taught for several years at the University of Michigan. The Ginseng Hunter's Notebook was published by New Issues Press (1999). Her work-in-progress includes a new collection of poetry, a novel, and essays on religious subjectivity in American women poets.