by Angie Mazakis
In a January 2010 blog post at HTMLGIANT, Elisa Gabbert, with the help of Mike Young*, cataloged popular “moves” in contemporary poetry, and the list, which is singular and far-reaching, is veracious in its deconstruction of the recent (and nearly-recent) ways in which poets’ work has attempted a unique voice. The list was undoubtedly welcomed by poetry’s readers and writers, corroborating our suspicions that certain repeated current devices may have become gimmick, especially if they are vulnerable to a collection of several examples and labeled as “moves.” At the same time, the list is somewhat dispiriting―all our word tricks exposed in one bill of misfare. (See #34 on Gabbert’s list: “Clipping or altering a cliché.”)
Carrie Oeding’s poems in Our List of Solutions, winner of the inaugural 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, transcend reliance on any of the devices delineated in Gabbert’s list, which, even to a minor extent, can be found in most current poetry. Oeding has achieved an exceptionally distinct voice that stands out among the assemblage of blossoming contemporary camps and persuasions by creating personae in her poems that illuminate the incidental, that offer hyper-awareness through witty, appealingly and truly unique voices. Oeding’s poems are a refreshing shift from imposture or imitation.
Though readers may find the speakers in Our List of Solutions alone on a dance floor or navigating a barbeque in a way that is more meditative and remote than social, they aren’t easily categorized as the standard introvert and socially isolated ingenues they may seem to represent at first glance; they belong to a social category of cool outside observers that has transcended the vagrant cynic; they’ve replaced aloofness with sensitive observation, have deflected incuriosity with perspicacity. They’re appealing because readers will want to participate in their unique perceptions, in the exclusivity of their rare appreciations (their own nice ears, for example). We feel their anxiety and envy it for its accuracy.
Their intimations of detachment often seem either accepted or self-invoked–they know too much about social normalcy (“Don’t wait for me to point out how people work”; “They all do what they’re only made to”). They are furtive and unbending at once, deliberate introverts who make directive statements while retaining their vulnerability. They are the solitary who do not want/need to be found (“Someone find someone who wants to find anyone/ and tell them no one wants to be found”). They are speakers who’ve resolutely jilted the stars (“Sandy Says No More! To Just About Everything”). They seem less anxious about their aloneness than they do about their advertent observations of the world and the people living in it. In “Sandy’s Beauty,” the speaker’s exposure of the social obligation of flattery creates a response that is both hilarious and touching at once:
One of my neighbors said, You’re beautiful!
As if she discovered Beautiful for me…
What do you like? It’s almost winter.
I have always had a feeling about myself.
Sandy personifies the superfluous “beauty,” sits it down and deconstructs and talks to it, having been given something she already had.
Despite the shy authority of these voices, the solitary inwardness of many of the speakers does not lose its moving, heartbreaking quality:
and I’ll make my own table too.
Better, without chairs.
—from “Amy Wears Blue Shirts Every Day, Too”
The voice of “we” weaves in and out of the book, dispensing instruction or exerting a warning (“We all know what happened to Dean”) or acting as a collective speaker of the poem (“Do you whisper, I can do this better,/ Susanna? Funny how we knew that. / We’ve already done better.”) Though it seems that the voice of “we” in Oeding’s poems is caricatured, the collective voice has desires or tastes that act so singularly readers will feel as though the we’s assertion is something they should have already felt or considered along with them. The voice is so convincing that we’re left wishing we were part of the group. It is also another avenue through which humor is used in the collection. (“We’re going to stop. We have a date. You understand.”)
When we think Oeding’s speakers are going to indulge in “description by negation,” (number 36 in Gabbert’s list of “moves”), even then they surprise by turning the negation further, so that there is still something unexpected around a corner we hadn’t anticipated.
After six whiskeys he can’t tell which neighbor can see through him.
Without seven he can’t tell the night what he doesn’t see.
—from “His List of Solutions”
Oeding does this another time as a kind of hyperbolic way of criticizing a prescriptive approach to finding love:
Don’t just like the lack of choice
in who you could really love, like all the choices
you could make to avoid love in hopes of finding love.
—from “We Like Steve and Louise’s Love”
The line break after “choices” creates an unexpected turn in the directive as well as in the negative indicators don’t, lack, and avoid, which oppose the positive could, could, and in hopes. This works to create surprise and subversion while deconstructing the meaning of the word “choice” and considering the various possibilities of choices.
Another way that Oeding impresses through the unexpected is by asking an ordinary question and then asking the relevant question readers likely wouldn’t think to ask—one that, in the following lines, makes up an inquiry concerning fundamental desire that beautifully, achingly resonates:
I wish it wasn’t dancing that gave me joy—
Can’t there be something besides dancing?
or maybe can’t there be something besides joy?
Oh, can’t there be something besides joy?
Another technical way Oeding uses language inventively is when she returns to a minor word, phrase, or idea soon after it has escaped the reader’s attention in a pleasing and unexpected reintroduction. This is done in a way that makes the reader surprised at the technique and surprised that he or she didn’t expect it. In “Storm’s A’Comin’,” we’re told there’s “a story about Dean and one about a funny hat, a favorite hat flying off in the wind.” Two lines later, when the wind seems to have ordinarily passed, “Someone’s mom has gout or goat―it’s hard to hear above the wind.” The phrase “asking for trouble” comes up again, wearing a new layer of meaning, as well as “pineapple”―just when we thought the case on the pineapple was closed.
One of the delights of Our List of Solutions is in the way that Oeding illuminates the minutiae. In “Lullaby for a Barrette,” the single act of pulling back hair is illuminated and examined, as is the act of sending a package in “Packages Under Our Control,” but illumination of the seemingly negligible and forgotten is a quiet strength throughout each of the poems, whether for its own sake or to create the rare, exquisite impressions that singularize unforgettable speakers. Carrie Oeding exposes the hidden sides―the felt but unexpressed, the loudly perceived but unsaid, and in the act of saying illuminates them, “each sequin getting its moment to be seen.”
Carrie Oeding, Our List of Solutions. 42 Mile Press, 2012: $14.25
*Correction: This review originally misattributed Elisa Gabbert’s article as being primarily written by Mike Young.
Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken Boat, New Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.