In “My Wife’s Shoes,” the first poem of Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse Press), Mike James writes “some nights we turn the radio to ballroom music and I pretend to be Fred Astaire, led by Ginger Rogers for a change, and dance in high heels in reverse.” “High heels in reverse” is the essence of his book. Astaire and Rogers had to know the geometry of each other’s bodies and steps inside and out to perform their moves. A careful eye can spot the scenes where Rogers is actually leading. This is exactly what Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor achieves.
We’ve all heard the old adage about reserving judgement until we’ve walked a mile in a man’s shoes, but that always assumes a lack of empathy and the need for a radical thought experiment just to imagine outside the self. In reality, as Mike James reminds us, we are always wearing each others shoes, although sometimes we lack the insight to see them, or we keep our steps hidden. Just as the surrealists were not about random weird imagery, but about making the real experience of our psyches visible, so too does Mike James make the multiplicity of self and the malleability of the body legible in his prose poems.
Like in his previous collections, My Favorite Houseguest and First-Hand Accounts from Made Up Places, James populates some of his book with portraits of celebrities. Yet, these portraits are never about the celebrity him or herself so much as they are about the process of painting them and seeing the pigment of self in each brushstroke. In “The Films of Burt Reynolds” he begins with “not the films, but the books about the films…Someone loved Burt enough to watch each, then write descriptively.” While James writes about someone writing about Burt, he’s also writing about himself, and how his “mother said she’d marry him if he’d just stop by.” For men, Burt’s mustachioed masculinity is something we’re supposed to identify through as he “walked down the carpet with Dinah, Lauren, Sally and Loni.” Yet, when he is written about, he becomes an object of grammar. Straight, gay, or in between, all men must ask, do we want to be Burt, do we want Burt, do we want to be wanted by Burt, or is it all of the above?
In “Questions for Marilyn Monroe” James speaks to celebrity as a conduit between the artist behind the image and the fan who identifies with it. He asks “How long did it take to hear Marilyn instead of Norma Jean in your dreams? Did you practice signing your name? Pouting in the mirror?” James shows us that at some point, a performance becomes invested with enough meaning to become reality. He does the same in “Oh Daddy, Give Me a Quarter For The Time Machine,” a juxtaposition watching, “Marlene sulk sexy onto the stage in black top hat” with “some unknown Sally at a barstool listening to other people’s dreams.” In this scenario, the fictional Sally Bowles is somehow as real as the real Marlene Dietrich, who is always a performance of herself.
James knows how language shapes the body, and how the body is shaped like language. In “The Body” James says “The body is present with yes. In sleep it follows the shape of a comma. In pain it is a knotted period.” If a body has punctuation, then a self is a narrative of inhabiting a body. Later in “The Sensible Mathematician” he writes “All day he’s thought of number 8…the endlessness of her circles…lusty squiggles that hint at infinity.” We like to think there is something so abstract, and concretely true that it cannot be prey to the subjectivity of desire. But if one is the loneliest number, Bo Derek can be a 10, and 36 24 36 is the mathematical equation of a brickhouse, then as James explains “there is so much muchness there.” Desire can be implied in something as abstract as a number.
Many pieces in the book recall Ovid’s Metamorphosis as James presents us with short vignettes of transformation. In “Wounds” he describes a man for whom “each wound made him more invisible…until the morning when the bathroom mirror barely held a face to shave.” “Runaway Ears”, is a Gogol-esque fable in which his ears abandon him, leaving him hearing their adventures in the world from a distance. In “The Tooth” James imagines how to fill a gap in his teeth, perhaps with “a tiny radio for jazzy tunes” to “make a spectacle for strangers and their kids.”
Although Mike James began with “high heels in reverse,” when he gets to Grace Jones, the advice is “Never go backwards darling. Let’s make that clear,” and the trajectory of the book is perfectly clear. In all his reconfigurations of gender, sexuality, desire, and flesh, the one constant is forward motion. As James further conjures Grace Jones, “Stick out the arrows of your breasts to lead one way. Walk straight like a soldier or crooked with a swish.” In Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor swish is the overlooked element of physics that makes a body in motion tend to stay in motion.
Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor is available via Blue Horse Press
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, San Pedro River Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.
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