In Defense of Ambiguity


In his review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a seminal experimentalist novel by David Markson, David Foster Wallace describes Markson’s narrative technique as “deep nonsense.” That novel tells the story of a woman who lives alone in a house on a beach, believing, rightly or wrongly, that she is the last human being on Earth. She recounts, presumably as a way of maintaining her sanity, every fact she can remember about Western civilization. But we soon notice that these facts are endlessly repeated, and that every time, a detail or three is changed. Einstein has become Churchill. It is not Proust who is gay, but Joyce. We start to read these “facts” not for the truth of their words, or even their literal sense, but for their incantory quality and for the desperate loneliness they reveal. Though the narrator is unnamed, and though she tells us almost nothing about her previous life or what happened to everyone else, we grow to know her via a sort of metaphorical and emotional through-line that allows continuity of meaning even while shattering the agreed-upon bonds between common signifiers and signifieds. The title of the book is no accident: the woman herself is Wittgenstein’s mistress; she is a speaker of the “private language” that Wittgenstein rejects in his Philosophical Investigations. If language is no longer communal then it means whatever its “author” chooses it to mean. However, the very fact that we are reading and understanding her words actually supports Wittgenstein’s argument: her language is not private after all. And hence the term “deep nonsense” to explain how words that are detached from their original meaning nevertheless manage to communicate.

Deep nonsense is, of course, not nonsense at all. Its sense is simply not the traditional, or superficial, one. This is where the word “deep” comes in. But how does a writer use language to create that sense of depth? How does he avoid mere nonsense? It seems to me that this is what the best surrealist film does; it is the aim and duty of certain poetry; and it is the effect of the lyrics of some of our greatest bands – to achieve a rich and suggestive ambiguity, while avoiding opacity.

***

Music, in particular, can be a great vehicle for deep nonsense. It operates not just on our linguistic sense, but on our auditory sense. As we listen to it, we are often engaged in other activities – driving, cleaning the house, mingling at a party. The lyrics can seep into our brain without too much active analysis. When we are confronted with a poem, on the other hand, we are alone with the words and there is a kind of obligation and challenge to understand them immediately. For this reader at least, the brain often butts up against a wall of inscrutability and grows frustrated. We live in an impatient age; we don’t want to read a poem 20 times. A song on the other hand, can be played over and over without much effort; all that is required is opportunity and time. And slowly a private meaning (which is not the same as a private language) creeps in. It may not be the lyricist’s intended meaning – nor, in fact, did the lyricist necessarily have an intended meaning – but it is the meaning we have made, and there is a joy that is both intellectual and visceral at having unlocked the puzzle’s secrets. Once we have decided on a song’s meaning, it sticks with us, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. What comes to mind is an episode of the Aaron Sorkin comedy Sports Night, where sports anchor Dan Rydell, convinced of impending trouble, references the song “Hide Your Heart, Girl” by Three Dog Night. When fellow anchor Casey McCall tells him that the “Eli” in the phrase “Eli’s coming” is not an occult symbol of impending doom, but rather an “inveterate womanizer,” Dan replies that he knows, but that that’s the way he interpreted it at first and it has always stuck with him. Like the readers of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and like the narrator herself, Dan has constructed an alternate meaning behind the literal one.

***

Let’s move to a more specific example of how one listener – this listener – constructs meaning from seemingly nonsensical lyricstuff. Here, in their entirety, are the lyrics to “Soft Pyramids” by a now disbanded postpunk outfit from Washington D.C., Q and Not U. The dashes in Line 1 indicate that the words are spelled out, letter by letter.

S-o-f-t p-y-r-a-m-i-d-s e-v-a-p-o-r-a-t-e at daylight.
Internationally fashioned like d-i-sease.
Patterns, a-l-w-a-y-s yes, maybe no.
This soft is building the softest buildings.
This soft is raising the firmest ceilings.
This soft is dimming the brightest cities every night.
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for a place?
We can’t imagine that.
How can we ask for the brightest cities every night?
Midnight, midnight.
Midnight, midnight.

Select a color for your checklist.
Color for your checklist, na na na.
Kiss every comma in your checklist,
Commas in your checklist, na na na.
Ah-ha, commas in your checklist,
commas in your checklist na na na, na na na.
Please pick a color for your checklist,
Color for your checklist, na na na, na na naaaa.

How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?
How can we ask for the best?
We can’t imagine that.
The softest blackout is soft and black
outside and in.
Clue me in.

We should begin with the title, since that offers a critical legend by which I map the rest of the song. When I hear the phrase “soft pyramids,” one thing comes to mind, and it is not a Salvador Dali painting. I am thinking of the pyramid, with its embedded Eye of Providence, found on the reverse side of the US dollar bill. Money being made of paper, this pyramid is of course “soft.” We also get the connotations of “soft money” and “pyramid schemes,” two capitalist phenomena associated with corruption, greed and the illusory appearance of sturdiness. Line 1 spells out, in a kind of ironic cheer, this impermanence. This is no “Y.M.C.A.”; the singing of individual letters is not meant to celebrate, but to fragment. Without reading the lyrics, it is very difficult to determine what is being spelled. But the last two words are said in their whole: “at daylight,” in other words, under the “harsh light of day.” These soft pyramids will not bear up to real scrutiny.

This idea is further expanded in the Line 4: “this soft is building the softest buildings.” Apart from its nice punning quality, this line is essential to the meaning of the song. “This soft [i.e. – money] is building [structures of impermanence].” The next line is harder to parse, as it seems to contradict the idea of impermanence, but it’s possible that “ceilings” refers to the limits set by capitalism for certain groups. Remember that this is a private meaning I’ve created, mostly by associative accident, and that not every detail has to fit into the schema. In fact, some are flat-out ignored if they can’t immediately be made to cohere. However, this idea of the natural oppressive limits of capitalism is buoyed by the next “stanza” (I use poetic terminology because this song lacks clear verses and choruses).

This stanza asks a series of rhetorical questions, presumably from the point of view of the disenfranchised. “How can we ask for a blanket and a habitat?” is another way of saying, “How can we, the disenfranchised, expect food and shelter in this corrupt system?” This idea of impossible expectations carries into the next line: “How can we ask for the best? We can’t imagine that.” The speaker’s very imaginative capabilities are stunted by a system that has taught him not to ask for too much. The last phrase echoes a phrase in the first stanza: he/they cannot ask for “the brightest cities every night,” the same brightest cities that are “dimmed” by “this soft.”

Now comes the tricky part. For a long time, I chalked the next stanza up to pleasant and nonsensical wordplay. But recently, I’ve come to see them as a critique of another societal superstructure, bureaucracy, and its fetishism of forms and irrelevant details. What could be more irrelevant than the color of a checklist? The idea brings to mind multicolored, triplicate forms. That it is a fetish, and not just a baroque accident, is emphasized in the phrase “kiss every comma in your checklist,” which stresses the punctilious nature of bureaucratic systems while vaguely sexualizing them.

***

So what do we get when we add it all together? For you, perhaps nothing. But for me, we get a critique of the corruption of the capitalist façade, the way it uses “soft pyramids” to erect “soft pyramids,” an endless feedback loop which can be seen as a metaphor for money itself. It only has value insofar as we agree that it does. Like the bureaucracy that manages it, it has a “shared value.” Sound familiar?

I do not know Christopher Richards, guitarist and vocalist for Q and Not U, personally. I have never had the opportunity to ask him what “Soft Pyramids” means to him. Does it even mean anything? Perhaps it is all just witty wordplay and sonic free association. But it is suggestive: I am able to construct from these ambiguous materials a definite meaning. But because the materials are ambiguous, the meaning is not predetermined. It is flexible, variant. And this seems connected to the project of good art: to avoid the overdetermination of meaning while suggesting possible interpretations. There is more than one way to do this. Some art presents a crystal-clear surface that only later yields its ambiguities (the poems of William Carlos Williams might be a good example). Some, like “Soft Pyramids,” operates on the principle of deep nonsense. This art is not willful or disobedient. Rather, it uses language, image or narrative in non-traditional ways, challenging us to not simply interpret, but to reinterpret whole systems of interpretation – to find the shared language in the seemingly private. This strikes me as an endlessly fertile project worth defending.

Small Press Review Series: Adam Robison and Other Poems (A Call to Arms or At Least to the Continued Search for the Munitions Locker* of Meaning Where Arms Might Be Kept)

Adam Robison and Other Poems
Adam Robinson
Narrow House (2010), 77 pages, $12

As an editor at a small press/journal, I wage daily confrontation against the sheer tonnage of quality work out there. After awhile, you don’t always ask yourself “Is it good in some objective measurable sense?” or even “Do I like it?” but “Does the literary world need this?” Of course this leads to a more fundamental question: What kind of writing, if any, does the world need? The shelves of bookstores and warehouses of Amazon are flooded with writing someone thought worthy of publication, and yet much of it is just more words on a page. The detritus of a culture with too much time on its hands.

As I read the charming Adam Robison and Other Poems by the not-quite-eponymous Adam Robinson, I wondered why this particular book needed to be published. As the title suggests, this is a work of fourth-wall-breaking experimental postmodernism. When I say that as an editor, I am seeking “the new,” I mean the truly new, not the merely “experimental” – which as anyone versed in their Barth and Barthelme knows is neither new nor actually experimental. It is, rather, another tradition like the more accurately named traditionalism.

Let me stress that Adam Robison is not a bad book. I even have a soft spot for this type of writing; I did pay for the book. The charm in Robinson’s writing is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it seems to directly position itself against serious interpretation. In this sense, asking whether the culture “needs” such a book is already answered, quite cheerfully, in the negative by the book itself. Its language is deliberately unpoetic and the poems tend to end on flat, declarative statements or sometimes even non sequiturs. Here are some representative endings, all as printed, without periods – suggesting that the poem’s ending is provisional or even arbitrary:

He had a pompadour or feather/A nom de plume was Johannes Climacus – “Soren Kierkegaard”

Brahms died in 1897 – “Brahms”

My grandmother is still alive – “Emma Ruth Rogers Tyner”

I know a lot about Mike Schmidt but he doesn’t know one single/solitary thing about me – “Captain Cool”

As I’ve already mentioned, and as is especially evident in the above quote from “Captain Cool,” Robinson’s prose is purposefully conversational, even comically so. From the same poem: One time Mike Schmidt hit a hit that hit a loudspeaker in Houston. That repetition is 100% grammatically correct and yet it’s the kind of move we rarely see in prose, let alone the heightened, compressed language of poetry. Or this, from “Curtis Ebbermeyer, Leading Authority on Flotsam:” What’s up with bottled water man…Boy howdy what’s the deal with bottled water. The missing commas only heighten the sense that these words have been arranged to resemble an overheard conversation, just more cultural flotsam, to echo the poem’s title. Such a tone and syntax seem to be saying, “Hey, none of this matters, but it’s kind of fun and interesting anyway.” This is a smart rhetorical position to take in this age of centerless postmodernism, but in its extreme – i.e.–when it’s used over and over throughout a collection – it leaves a reader a little sad and untethered. The trouble is that it’s not a trick meant to lead us toward the meaning at the heart of apparent meaninglessness. (See how, for example, David Foster Wallace uses postmodern means for traditional ends.) Rather, Robinson appears to believe in the meaninglessness of it all. Which leads me to the question: why a book of poetry? Is it just one more wet noodle thrown against the void? Robinson seems aware of this weakness:

My poems lack depth and complexity in which the reader can invest
They are bald things…
…Readers will grow bored and go about their day
“There’s no urgency” they’ll complain “No incision.”

And yet an admission of a book’s faults does little but reveal the impotent self-consciousness of the author; it doesn’t eradicate or reduce the faults (though it can mitigate them marginally). Robinson is not wholly without poetry, as that interesting word “incision” in the above passage suggests. Here’s a passage from one of the stronger poems:

Deathbed is one word made special for the place you die
But there is no one special place for your deathbed
On her deathbed what do you want your daughter to say
You will be so spitsoul sad
Then you will be okay
Then you will be sad that you are okay
Then mostly okay again and well this will continue
Even now I often feel sad that I am not sadder
And my worst thing that died was a dog

This piece strikes me as new and weird and truly experimental. It strikes me, which is exactly what literature needs – poems that act as a slap to our complacency. Who hasn’t felt “sad that you are okay?” And further, doesn’t it say something interesting about the paradox at the heart of Western luxury and ease that the speaker is saddened that his “worst thing that died was a dog?” And yet this is an ugliness that we rarely admit: that our lives are empty, and our poetry shallow, due to the fact that our lives are too good.

Probably it is unfair of me to insist that every book assert its necessity. When you get right down to it, Robinson and I are asking the same question: when the traditional is too retrograde and predictable to impact us and the postmodern is a dead end (and equally retrograde), where and how do we find meaning? I worry, though, that Robinson has settled for postmodern stasis rather than trying to find the hard path forward. Because I believe there is meaning in the world. People die – not just dogs – and along the way they suffer and kill and surprise with kindness, creating narratives about themselves and the world, just as they always have.


*Editors Note – But of course the munitions locker wouldn’t contain meaning itself but merely the tools to target that meaning. Or something. To append a Robinson-like ending:
Oh well.

Small Press Review Series: One Last Good Time and the Literary Platypus

One Last Good Time
Michael Kardos
Press 53 (2010), 185 pages, $14.95

The trouble with interconnected story collections is that they are interconnected.

I know, I know: the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club. But in this case, it’s not an argumentative fallacy to say that the qualities that make interconnected story collections theoretically interesting can make them disappointing in practice. It has to do with reader response: we come to a short story for a discrete experience – a world we enter and leave in the same sitting. If we recognize a character, a setting, or a matrix of events from a previous story the sense of separateness is lost. And at the same time, we don’t get the total immersion of a novel. READ MORE

Frozen on a Street Corner While the Unbludgeoned World Moves Forward

Michel Franco’s Daniel y Ana

In the last decade or so, Mexican film has been among the most consistently interesting in the world. It has a certain moral and social grittiness not seen in most American movies, but a tightly-edited watchability missing in European films. Some big-name, Hollywood-endorsed movies spring to mind – Amores Perros, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá También – but there are also some worthy, less-heralded candidates. One of these is 2009’s Daniel y Ana.

Directed by Michel Franco and starring Gael García Bernal’s younger brother, Dario Yazbek Bernal, the film garnered critical attention at Cannes and other film festivals, but is still without its own wiki, and its IMDB page is incomplete and littered with negative reviews. I don’t want to psychoanalyze audience reaction too much, but part of this reception could be because the movie straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between shocking and subtle. It will turn off the easily offended, but with its nearly geologically paced shifts in character, it will also alienate thrill seekers. It is genuinely disturbing – a very different effect than simply being shocking.

Most synopses of the film have shied away from the trauma at its heart, perhaps reluctant to ruin the suddenness with which the trauma occurs. I, for one, had guessed at it simply by looking at the movie’s cover, but the movie remained vital and unruined for me. In fact, this knowledge, coupled with the slowness of the movie’s first act, created a nice simmering dread which I found just as effective as the hammer-to-the-head suddenness of real trauma.

Therefore: spoiler alert for that which there is no way, really, to spoil.

Daniel and Ana are brother and sister, young privileged Mexicans at pivotal points in their lives. Ana is on the verge of getting married. Daniel is a typical teenager, taciturn and self-involved, on the verge of losing his virginity to his girlfriend and resentful of not having been given a new car yet. One day the siblings go shopping and Daniel fails to make the appropriate turn on the way home. Two men jump into their car and hold a gun to Daniel’s head. They blindfold Daniel and Ana, throw them in the trunk, and take them to a big, starkly furnished house. And yes, if you haven’t guessed, they force them to have sex. On camera. Brother and sister.

The true horror of this scene is not just in its unflinchingness, but in the way it indicts the viewer. Daniel and Ana are beautiful, slim, and pale, like Greek statues. You cannot look away as Daniel fucks her from behind. Her face is buried in the mattress, and though we know she is weeping, it might be mistaken for orgasmic bliss. Daniel comes quickly and shamefully, as any teenager having sex for the first time might.

What follows is a study in post-traumatic stress. Both victims retreat from the world in their separate ways. Ana breaks things off with her fiance and retreats into her room.  Daniel stops going to school, spends time in movie theaters watching any old film. He also breaks things off with his girlfriend. Quite understandably, both do not talk to their parents about what happened.

In the end Ana proves to be the stronger about it, more equipped to deal with it because of her relative adulthood perhaps. She sees a therapist, weeps, and delicately broaches the subject with Daniel. Daniel meanwhile lies about going to the therapist and continues his self-destructive behavior. He googles their video, but gets no matches. There is another big twist at the heart of the film and perhaps you can figure it out. It didn’t surprise me, but I still don’t want to give everything away. Suffice to say it had the quality of being both unexpected and entirely appropriate that all the best storytelling should have.

As It Ought to Be cofounder, Okla Elliott, compares Franco’s subject matter to Neil Labute – that great American playwright, director, and darkly comic moralist responsible for Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men – and that’s as useful a touchstone as any. But he admits that the comparison is of limited use, and indeed, Labute has a venomous edge that Franco does not. Labute seems to see everyone as disgusting – either weak and sniveling or sociopathic – while Franco’s aim is to show us how fundamentally good people react to horrible events. Though Daniel, and to a lesser extent Ana, behave badly throughout the movie, we understand why. There is no comic distortion or exaggeration. This goes back to the difference I outlined earlier between shocking and disturbing: the shocking cries “Look at me!” while the disturbing goes about its quietly gruesome business, twisting the psychological knife deeper and deeper. It doesn’t need to beg for attention because it’s impossible for us to look away.

Further, Labute is a playwright and his characters vocalize their trauma in a way that seems psychologically untrue to me. One reason I think this movie was, relatively speaking, not well received by audiences is that there is so much silence at its heart – that the shifts in attitude of its two main characters are so gradual and happen over scenes that only seem repetitive. In pace, Daniel y Ana resembles a Euro-film (or the American idea of one), and yet there is no fashionable ennui here, or Bergman-like scenes of Freudian camerawork, just two characters coming to grips with their shattered relationship with each other, their family and lovers, and the world.

There is a beautiful and telling image some two-thirds of the way into the movie: Daniel is deep in his daily wanderings on a crowded street; the light changes and all the pedestrians move forward in a wave, crossing to the other side of the street, but Daniel just stands there. This strikes me as the perfect symbol for the way trauma affects us: it leaves us frozen on a street corner while the rest of the world moves—steadily, ignorantly, heartlessly—forward.


French Connection

Two recent novels by French-speaking authors blend close psychological analysis with free-flowing lyricism to tell deceptively simple love stories. One of those books, In the Train, by Christian Oster, was released by Object Press this year. Object Press, out of Toronto, is an indie press established in 2008 and with only two titles to its name so far. But if In the Train is any indication, they are off to a promising start.

Oster’s novel is small, not quite 150 sparsely printed pages, and the story it tells is a modest one. Frank, nondescript in every aspect except his tendency to overanalyze and his habit of seeking out women on train platforms, meets Anne, a woman carrying a large bag at the Paris station. He offers to hold the bag for her and thus their romance begins. Anne is cautious at first, but Frank insinuates himself into her heart through a series of maneuvers ranging from half-gestures to outright stalking – or what would amount to stalking if we weren’t charmed by Frank’s voice and thus made to trust his motives.

I’ve not read another novel by Oster so I can’t say if this voice is his or one cleverly adopted for Frank. But whether he’s chosen the perfect character for his style or created the perfect style for his character, it’s a match. Comma-heavy, this style involves long sentences, full of clarifications, elaborations, asides, and disclaimers – many of them seemingly unnecessary; and yet they charm us while drawing us closer to Frank, and so, I think, are essential.

Here is Frank analyzing Anne’s reaction after he offers to hold her bag:

She looked tempted by my offer, although still undecided. Then she looked at me and thought that, at worst, I was interested in her, not her bag, and she handed it to me… I took the bag, thinking this woman was actually pretty relaxed, with men, unless she was doing everything possible to be left in peace, but I wasn’t sure this was the best way to go about it, with a man. But with me, I don’t know.

There are plenty of phrases here that an insensitive editor might remove, but to do so would be to miss the point. And besides, there’s enough meat in the story that we don’t get sick of this style. Not only is there Frank’s questionable behavior as he knocks on every door of the hotel to which he has followed Anne – is this gesture romantic or creepy, and more importantly, how will Anne see it? – but there is another man, a successful and interesting author who uses Anne as a plaything. When Anne first takes off her robe for Frank, in her hotel room while waiting for the author to return, we are not sure whether her behavior is the result of genuine attraction or revenge on a man who has hurt her. We go on questioning her sincerity throughout the story: even when she does succumb to Frank’s love, we can’t help but feel she’s settling.

The overly explanatory style doesn’t always suit Oster’s purposes perfectly. The bag in the aforementioned passage comes to symbolize many things – an obstacle to Frank and Anne being fully united; the weight of their separate pasts; the burden of love – but Frank makes all these meanings explicit to us, and in doing so, they lose some of the impact they might have had were we allowed to figure them out on our own.

All in all though, this is a strong novel in the European mode – if I might be allowed such a generalization. European novels tend to privilege abstraction and the explicit elaboration of thought and feeling, while American novels approach these things obliquely, through gesture, dialogue, loaded description and telling action. Both are useful and worthy methods, but it’s books like this that give rise to the lie at the heart of the worst American fiction: that we do not elaborate our feelings and thoughts to ourselves; that we are acting, not thinking, beings and that we approach our consciousnesses indirectly.

Running Away, by Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is roughly the same size and scope as In the Train. Released in 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press, it tells the story of an unnamed narrator who, on business trip to Shanghai, becomes involved with a mysterious woman named Li Qi. What follows is a whirlwind, dreamlike romance.

Like In the Train, much of this book takes place on the move – in trains, yes, but also on planes; and there is even a high-speed chase by motorcycle. As in In the Train, the romance is complicated by a third party – in this case, the narrator’s business partner, Zhang Xiangzhi, who has an ambiguous, probably romantic, relationship with Li Qi. And like In the Train, the story is told in the observant, lyrical voice of its first-person narrator. But while In the Train roots us in Frank’s head, Running Away focuses more on the physical world, providing lengthy descriptions of Shanghai, Beijing, and the Mediterranean.

At places, this book reads like the best travel writing. Here are the narrator and Li Qi after they first meet at a Shanghai art gallery:

Sound checks could be heard from the warehouse, and sharp bursts of Chinese heavy metal…filled the calm surroundings of the summer night, causing glass panes to vibrate and sending grasshoppers flying in the warmth of the air. It became difficult to hear one other on the bench and I moved closer to her…

Compare this to Frank’s meeting with Anne. In that passage, the focus is entirely on the two characters – just look at how many times the words “she” and “I” are used; and then notice how comparatively empty of pronouns the passage from Running Away is.

While it is nice to have a visceral experience of teeming China, Toussaint’s descriptive gifts often push us away when we should be drawn closer. Just as we become interested in the menacing, yet oddly passive love triangle (Zhang seems to know what’s going on between the narrator and Li Qi and yet doesn’t seem angry about it) we are dowsed in lyricism that gives a poetic lift to a situation that, psychologically, can’t support it. Where Oster uses lyricism to extract his characters’ motivations, Toussaint trains it on the outer world. And so the trio who races via motorcycle through the streets of Beijing could be anybody at all, the nice tension between them dropping away into mere action:

We turned off the freeway to escape our pursuers, braking to take an off- ramp, but the sirens kept following us, seeming to multiply in space, coming from everywhere at once, as when a number of police cars converge on the scene of an accident at high speed…

There’s a reason high-speed chases aren’t thought of as literary. Running Away does provide a deepening context to the passage: the narrator is “running away” from a previous romance; and the chase, his constant movement between countries, and his quick plunge into the arms of another woman all reflect that. However, Toussaint misses opportunities to complicate this idea, or I should say that the natural limitations of his style – its tendency toward superficial, poetic effect – prevent him from realizing these opportunities. It is when this book, yes, runs away from the very things that make it most European that it loses us, too.


Drinking with British Architects

A Not-Very-Objective Review

by Raul Clement

Recently, poet Jeff Laughlin sent me a copy of his first collection, Drinking with British Architects. This is a chapbook of less than 50 pages that went through a press run of 100 copies and is now sold out. I would guess that of those 100 copies, 90 of them went to friends or people at the small reading held for its release. To put that in perspective, more people will probably read this blog post than Laughlin’s collection.

And yet it is good. A full disclosure forces me to admit that Laughlin is a friend of mine, and that he offered to send me the book, free of charge, over drinks. So perhaps I wanted to like it; and yet I think, objectively speaking, that it is livelier than most poetry I read in major journals and that the fact that it was released so modestly is a testament to how hard it is to make it in this business, how much toil and sheer luck it takes, and how the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This is especially true for first collections. Resumes are, of course, a self-powered engine: the more impressive your resume looks, the more likely a journal or small press is to seriously consider your work. Many of these presses are struggling to stay afloat and they probably shouldn’t be faulted for preferring an author with a track record. It does seem a little small-minded when you consider the miniscule difference in sales we are talking about here – does one previous publication in the Black Warrior Review bring with it a rabid cult following? – and yet when you are treading water, you will cling to even the smallest piece of driftwood. As someone who has seen the editorial side of this business, I understand and sympathize with this even while it saddens me.

But let’s look at the collection. The title sounds like a Decemberists song, and indeed, much of the work seems influenced by the new literary side of indie rock. Colin Meloy, singer of the Decemberists, is a graduate of the MFA program at The University of Montana; conversely, Jeff Laughlin was (until his move back to North Carolina from New York) the singer of an acoustic, ballad-based group known as Beards. Many of his poems have a sung quality, aware of their rhythm and canny in their use of repetition, and the overall attitude is one of romantic, drunken Tom Waitsism. This is particularly evident in the “women” poems, which apparently were supposed to be part of their own chapbook, but which the publisher insisted Laughlin include – rightly, I might add. The first is called “The Women I Know” and every stanza begins with that phrase. It is a critique of the pursuit of an empty, surface-type of pleasure at the expense of a deeper happiness:

The women I know crack their
clavicles if only to stick out their
chests.

This perfectly conveys the desperate need these women have to be thought of as sexual beings. Another line struck me as entirely accurate to a recent experience I had had with a young woman whose chief aim seemed to be worshipped by every man around her. That he had outed my interior life so accurately bespeaks the quality of the work.

The women I know go about their
pleasure the same way: without
love and continuously.

As you can see here, Laughlin privileges the strong opening word rather than the clever line break. Nouns like “clavicles” and “chest” get initial weight, not the last word. Lines don’t end so much as flow into each other. And here at least, he privileges abstraction over the concrete image – a preference that, as much as the extravagantly sentimental attitude, lends to the quality I’ve already identified as coming from the indie rock lyrical tradition.

But Laughlin is too skilled in other ways to be dismissed as a rock musician turned poet. The collection is united by several systems of images and titles that give it a formal quality its free verse lacks. There is an obsession with body parts – particularly the poet’s own broken and damaged parts. This is from “The Critic’s Worry,” one of a series.

There were grease marks along my arms—
Their length took me off guard.
I scrubbed until capillaries broke,
But my blood was not as thick as the car’s.

This stanza shows that Laughlin has the ability to paint a specific scene using concrete images. It also shows that he is not insensitive to the charms of formalism. Not only does he end every line on a strong monosyllable, but there is a definite respect for rhyme hinted at it in “arms”/”guard”/”cars.” Here are more broken body parts in the sister poem, “A Soldier’s Worry.”

We march through split heels,
chafed shouldertops, sprained ankles, compressed
knees, and, invariably, arthritic knuckles.

I particularly like that word “invariably.” Later more body part imagery, albeit now wed to some nice description of the physical world:

The most amazing things actually do affect us,
ever so slightly: groves of oranges, broken branches,
houses foraged with rotten wood, rain, broken vessels
on elderly hands or voices floating through light brush.

Here “affect us” is echoed by “vessels,” and “groves” by “broken.” Similarly, the repetition of “broken” unites “branches” and “vessels” – the world of nature thus equated with the human body. As the soldiers walk, they are beaten down by the physical world until they become it. Even the voices only come at them “through light brush” –a nice, simple image which also manages to convey painting, and thus art in the abstract.

[Note: these are my interpretations and are in no way intended to suggest authorial intent; this is just a survey of the many association these poems, like all good poetry, inspired in me.]

As I’ve already hinted, it is in repetition where Laughlin really excels. “Lists” finds the poet guessing at the contents of a list left behind by his roommate. Each verse is structured with the casualness of a prose poem and is yet another guess at the list’s contents.

No. You are a list of morose sights—deceased grandparents, bloodied fists, crooked-billed birds with feathers still falling from once-clean windows, dead dogs on the sides of dirt roads. You are the wrong vision at the right time.

Or:

No. You are a list of pragmatic decisions—split-ups before things got too serious, pets put to sleep, gifts exchanged on Christmas Eve, shirts in donations boxes despite still being in fashion. You are a remembrance of things still around but unwound from the mind.

There is further subtler repetition here in the mention of another dead pet, this one purposefully and pragmatically “put to sleep.” Similarly, the last lines echo each other.

Another repetition poem, appropriately titled “Simultaneous Reactions,” verges on the annoying but somehow transcends that by sheer brave bombardment. It begins: “Appetites are growing, finger-skin is getting more coarse, strength is waning.” (Another reference to body parts, specifically hands, which are mentioned over and over.) The use of the gerund here makes reading it a bit of a slog, but the joy is in seeing the different uses and combinations Laughlin comes up with. “Parachutes aren’t opening, cause is no longer affecting, science is calculating.” Here “calculating” can be a verb or adjective. Another example of the same: “Waitresses are finishing doubles, carrots are digesting, work is boring.” Not carrots are “being digested,” but are doing the “digesting” (though obviously they are also being digested). Similarly one imagines work “boring” into the speaker’s skull, like a drill. Many other lines have similar effect, making us question our preconceptions of the meaning of words. The sum total of all this repetition is to soak the reader in the variety of world. The poem ends, “I am brimming with capability, I am leaning side-angled into nothing, I am proselytizing.” Not only does this nicely bring the lens back around to the observer, it also hints at the meaning of all these “Simultaneous Reactions.” The poet is “brimming” with the possibilities of the world, but at the same time he is sunk in the infinite “nothing” of its excess, his only recourse “proselytizing” (really just another word for making poetry).

I wish I could sink my teeth more thoroughly into the meat of this collection. I’d like to talk about the series of “Autobiography” poems, the other “women” poems (especially “The Women I Don’t Know,” which flirts with and redetermines “The Women I Know”), or the absurdist “Not Titled,” a prose poem about, yes, a biblical rain of tacos. I hold a soft spot for the poem “Pregnant Crooked Horse,” having unwittingly inspired the title (long story), if not the subject matter, and so I feel like I have slighted it. I’d also like to discuss whether or not it was wise to have ended the collection on the title story, a strong poem which turns out to be deliciously less surreal than its name suggests, or whether it would have been better to end with another “Autobiography” poem, thus giving the collection a cleaner symmetry.

But I fear taxing the reader’s patience on a book he may never read. The good news is that the author is working on a new collection, one that he claims will be even darker and more alcohol-drenched. Until then I’ll leave you with my favorite poem in the collection, which sums up the entire history of literary friendships (the existence of which are, in fact, at least partially responsible for the writing of this review). Hopefully it will be enough to convince you that the underground of American poetry is alive and well – in fact, often more fully alive than the more heralded surface.

Upon Hearing Liakos Read From Another City While We Were Both Drunk

If you don’t keep that one
I will throw something at you.

It will be heavy,
and possibly wet.

It will be, most definitely,
something close and large.

It will be an object symbolizing
my obstructive frustration.

It will pass by your head,
grazing your cheek-skin.

It will remember you to
the sharks of your past.

It will recall the conquerable
people that made both of us.

It will punish you to leave a
contrail or convex or context.

I do not know much else about it
except that it will smash on the floor.

It will leave a mark on the ground
where I didn’t want it to.

I didn’t want it, I never ever did,
and it will crash, waking roommates.

You will look and we will laugh
but you gotta keep that one.

You’ve got to, got to—because
there is only one envelope left.

It will shatter next to the only envelope
left in the entire universe forever.

[Note: if you are interested in receiving a free electronic copy of this collection, email Jeff Laughlin at repetitionisfailure@gmail.com. I will post details about his follow-up collection as they become available.]

Tiger Moth

[This story was originally published in The Chaffey Review in May of 2009.  It is reprinted here with minimal editorial changes.]

Tiger Moth

by Raul Clement

For a long time after the boy’s death, the father sat in the darkened rooms of the house and stared at his empty hands. They were strange birds. The mother made several delicate attempts to pull him back into their world: she bought tickets to plays, she arranged dinner with the couple down the street, she ironed his suits. Then one afternoon she found him in Derrick’s bedroom, pieces of a remote-operated model Tiger Moth spread before him. With a penknife he was chipping a wing from the battered body of the plane.

I thought I should rebuild it,” he said.

How did you get in?” she demanded.

In the yard shadows played on the bleached frame of the shed he’d begun last summer. A tarp serving as a doorway beat in the wind. He was self-employed, a woodworker retouching antiques, and for nearly a month he’d taken no clients.

Well?” she asked.

He squinted at her and then went back to his tapping, until the motor spilled into his palm. He cradled it, tracing a sloppy scar of glue. “It’s smaller than I would have guessed. Odd…such a little thing could fly.”

He had found the key, then. She remembered locking Derrick’s room the day before the viewing. He should be buried in something nice, the mortician had said. She’d laid out three suits on the bed, ironing them and choosing matching ties, before flinging them to the floor, and the blankets with them, the sheets, the mattress slip. She rested her cheek against the naked mattress, feeling the springs behind its cool drum-tight skin—there was a rust-orange stain at the foot of the bed. Australia, she thought absurdly, it looks like Australia.

At last she stood, wiped the mascara smudges from her cheeks, smoothed her dress. From the closet she took a navy-blue uniform with wings stitched across the shoulders. That Halloween Derrick had been a pilot, part of a year-long obsession that included radio flyers, books on Charles Lindbergh, the Bermuda Triangle. He should be buried in this, not the starchy church attire he’d always hated.

The father had finished breaking down the plane, and had the pieces spread on a square of cloth. With a thin brush, he dabbed the propeller with red paint. He put on a few black spots.

Ladybug, he thought. Derrick used to pull them apart. Maybe this one would put itself together again and fly away.

She held out her hand. “Give it to me.”

Is it so late already?” He began to shuffle from the room.

Where’s the key? How did you get in?”

He glared at her as if she were being willfully dense. “He opened it for me.”

She went to the mirror in the hallway and ran her finger over the dusty lip, encountering loose metal. The key was where she’d left it. She locked the room, and taking the key to the basement, hid it behind the boiler, inside a box stuffed with her grandmother’s china.

*

That night she awoke with a bladder full of the wine she’d had to help her sleep. As she stepped into the hallway, she noticed an alien glow from behind Derrick’s door. She tried the knob and the door swung open. There was a magazine fanned out on the bed, a record jacket on the floor—things not in themselves meaningful, but disturbing because she couldn’t remember how they got there.

She hurried to the basement and dragged the box into the light. She dug around for the key, and when she could not find it, she removed the china, dish by dish. She unwrapped and shook out the brittle newspaper. The pages fell apart, leaving the smudges of letters on her fingertips. She held her shaking hands up to her face, and then spit on them, began rubbing them furiously on her nightgown. Then she remembered herself and let her arms fall to her side, looking about quickly as if to make sure she hadn’t been seen.

In the bedroom she shook him awake. “I don’t know how you did it, but this can’t go on.”

He rolled away from the light, smothering his head with a pillow.

The next morning she found him on the back porch, turning the nearly assembled plane in his hands, noting the way it caught and twisted the light.

He was grinning, proud but sheepish. “It’s really going to fly this time.”

Stop blaming yourself,” she told him.

But they were talking about different things. They always would be. Because there it was, over his shoulder, the shed—skeletal beams swaying a little in the foundation. As long as it stood, she knew, it would mock even their modest attempts to move on.

*

When Derrick was eight years old, she enrolled him in Cub Scouts. They met Sunday afternoons in the basement of a block-shaped church—Derrick and a dozen boys his age. She’d had to bribe Derrick with the promise of a new bicycle if he attended the meetings for at least six months. Her hope was that some of the enthusiasm of the other boys would rub off on Derrick, but before the meetings he wouldn’t join them as they traded comic books and dashed through the sprinkler on the lawn. Instead he took a seat on the church steps, waiting to be let inside. Three hours later he would be in the same position, studying his shoelaces in the cricket-filled dusk.

One evening, after several months of meetings, he ran to her car where she idled on the curb. He thrust a paper through the window, some sort of newsletter. “Model plane contest. We’ve got to build our own planes and install our own engines and the one that flies the best wins. Fifty dollars. There’s also a prize for best design.”

A few days later, he sat hunched over the kitchen table, an elaborate spread of penciled forms and symbols before him—blueprints for the assembly of a de Havilland Tiger Moth. From the doorway, she and her husband watched. “You know, the other boys’ fathers will help them,” she told her son.

The other boys won’t learn anything,” Derrick said.

Two weeks later, everyone gathered in a gravel lot outside of town. The lot was surrounded by toothy columns of pines, and just beyond, the throbbing passage of the river. Birds sang in high branches. The boys fidgeted in their crinkly uniforms, pants rolled up to relieve some of the heat. The planes were lined up in the dirt at one end of the lot, and there was a narrow length of tape at the lot’s opposite end, where onion grass swallowed the gravel.

You boys ready?” asked the scout leader. “What was that? You didn’t sound ready to me.”

Yes, sir!” came the boys’ trilling voices, and then one boy’s belated, “Let’s do it!”

The boys took their positions in front of their planes and the scout leader blew the whistle. The parents watched, leaning against the sun-warmed hoods of their cars, as the planes climbed into the air. But one plane wasn’t rising at all, was just bouncing across the pebbly lot, running aground on plastic bags and rocks, wheels spinning desperately, at last breaking free. The other planes had already landed safely and now everyone was waiting, watching the Tiger Moth as it lifted briefly off the earth, came smacking back down. Just before it reached the finish line, the plane leapt as if stung, climbing ten or fifteen feet in the air, before plummeting into the wall of grass.

The boys ran forward, looking for the lost plane. They wandered the field in circles and when that didn’t work, they combed the area in orderly lines. The parents joined them. Derrick drifted back to his parent’s car, and climbed into the back seat, slumping out of sight. The sun was sinking behind the trees before they found the plane, still mostly intact save a wing, buried in an anthill a few yards further on. They carried the broken body back to the cars.

But Derrick was not in the car. So another search party was formed, this one equipped with flashlights and cell phones, with which the parents radioed each other. Hours later, the last smear of sunset draining from a sky thick with crows, they found him in the spidery branches of a tree at a bend in the river. He was out on a thin limb, over an archipelago of slick rocks, the river gushing below him. The branch creaked beneath his weight, as if it might snap at any moment. He refused to come down.

Let me up there,” his father said, removing his jacket. He scaled the trunk and made his way onto a nearby branch. “Derrick,” he said. “How about you come in a little, so we can talk?” He reached out. “Will you at least hear what I have to say?”

There was a murmur from below as Derrick scooted a little closer to his father, and then a bit more. His father leaned forward, grabbing another branch to brace himself. He spoke in a whisper. He didn’t want all of them listening in.

I had a dream the other night,” he said. “Do you want to hear?”

Derrick stared at his feet dangling in the air. The river shuffled by. Small furry creatures rustled in the underbrush.

Me and you,” he continued. “we’re in a plane, and you’re flying. We’re over the coast of a tropical island. The water’s so blue it’s clear and we can see huge cities of coral just below the surface. You’re wearing a pilot’s uniform, a real one. ‘Want to try?’ you ask. I take the controls and I feel the heart of the plane. It’s like something alive, purring, telling us everything’s going to be all right. Don’t you want something like that?”

On the ground, the mother strained to hear. There was a brief quiet where Derrick might have said, “I’m scared.” Then, the father was holding his hand, guiding him down the tree. As the other fathers slapped him on the back saying “Job well done” and other things masculine and appreciative, the mother felt a surge of shame, and deeper than that, anger at Derrick for embarrassing her, at her husband for not helping him, at herself for stepping aside. She hurried back to the car.

In the bathroom that night, she stood behind her husband, watching him reflected as he brushed his teeth. She wanted to make some small gesture of forgiveness. “What did you say up there?”

The same thing you would have.” But he turned away from the mirror and wouldn’t let her see his face.

*

That night she awoke again. From the hallway came warbling music, so small and hesitant she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t in her imagination. Her husband was not in their bed. She followed the music into the hall, but it neither grew louder nor softened. Outside Derrick’s room, she pressed her ear to the door—nothing but the creaking of the wood, the hum of the boiler through the skeleton of the house. She turned the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She kicked the door, making it shudder.

What’s going on here?” she demanded. But there was nothing but the far-off tick of a clock. She slid down the wall, collapsing on the floor. Tick-tick. Soon it was all she could hear.

It had been a bright Saturday in late winter, a cautious warmth to the air. She woke late, to the twang of a hammer on wood. She padded to the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and watched steam curl from the brim. She held the mug in both hands, feeling its heat creep up her arms. The cat leapt from the table to brush against her leg before finding its place in the shifting sun, where it yawned and closed its eyes.

She took her coffee and muffin out to the porch to let the sun soak into her bare feet. She didn’t drink in those days and she enjoyed the mornings. The shed was coming along smoothly, she decided, rafters and columns stamping the shape of a future enclosure. Her husband straddled a joist, bearing down with a drill. Derrick—up early the way he never was on school days—ran circles through the shed, squeezing through gaps in the wall. At one point he picked up a hammer and scaled a ladder until he was level with his father. He held out the hammer, but her husband waved it off. It was nice to see Derrick this way again, she thought, after the disappointments of last summer.

Derrick reversed down the ladder, leaping off halfway to land neatly on his feet. He wandered about, running his finger along the edge of a saw, kicking loose screws. He picked up a nail and squatted, writing something in the dirt. Then he looked up and she waved at him. He returned the wave and she went inside to practice piano.

The father, who had noticed the mother there and taken comfort in it, drove another nail home, enjoying the smell of new wood and the warmth of the sun on his back. Spring was coming and then he could lose himself out here, make something real. He’d tried to show this to Derrick, but the boy had never understood.

Hey dad,” Derrick called. He was halfway up the ladder, leaning forward. “I’m going to measure your angles. Watch.”

Be careful.” He fished another nail from the pack, bent low over the hammer’s arc. The vibration scooted the ladder to one side.

She was practicing her trills when she heard the small, strangled cry. A moment later, the screen banged shut. She ran into the kitchen to find her husband mashing buttons on the phone. He was shirtless and sweating. He met her gaze with wild eyes, seeming to see right through her.

He just…” he said. “I didn’t mean….”

She rushed outside, knowing what she would find, but pulled by some hysterical compulsion to see it, to really see. The first thing she came across were his feet, splayed awkwardly in the red Converses she’d bought him for his last birthday. One shoelace was untied. She wanted to tie it, but then she took a step forward and saw his head, twisted and limp on his neck. His arms were beneath him. She pulled him to her and breathed into his mouth. She was still doing this when the ambulance arrived.

*

A branch battering a window made her jump. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, or if she’d slept at all. The wind howled through the rooms of the house. She tried Derrick’s door again and this time it swung open, almost without her touching it. She hesitated, then stepped inside.

The bed looked slept in, the sheets in disarray. She searched for some familiar shape there—a friendly face, a continent—but there was nothing. Just the empty mattress, begging for his small weight. She remembered his breath as he slept, soft and easy. She’d sometimes sneak in at night and stand in the doorway, trying to imagine his dreams. She could almost hear him now, but it was all too distant, too far away. And it grew further every day.

A crash came from downstairs. She ran down the steps and found the front door banging in its hinges. Her husband stood on the lawn, facing the street, a heavy, square box in his hands. Wind furrowed his hair, tossed leaves in a winding, erratic ballet. There was a shiver in the air. She touched his shoulder, hesitated. He was working the joystick of a remote control, pulling and tapping it with his thumb. A sheet of lightning stamped the sky and she could see the plane as it dived between the tall, dark trees. She wanted to say something, anything.

Weather’s changing,” he said without turning, voice flat, as if this were the simplest of facts.