TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Siham Karami

photo2

Suicide Hotline Hold Music

by Jessy Randall

Red Hen Press, 2016

$11.95

photo1 (1)

Sometimes it seems as if the poetry world is forever on a search for the New. Or I should say, New! Going further, the highest praise for poetry these days is to say it “reinvents language.” As if the English language has been basically used up, and poets are tasked with making it work again, from the ground up. Or maybe it’s that poetry itself no longer draws the audiences of yore: “yore” being…Elizabethan theater? Homer’s Greece? Perhaps Kennedy’s inauguration? In any case, one can safely say that there are two tribes in the poetry world: the highbrow, dominated by academia, and the lowbrow, dominated by pop music lyrics, poetry slams, rap, and greeting card/ Internet poetry. The former is held to high standards, divided into genres, and is judged by editorial and “established” peer discretion. The latter is held to to the standard of popularity (and/or monetary success). The search for the New! is part of highbrow poetry’s search for a validation of its existence, at odds with what have become the Western values of profit and popularity über alles. Enter Jessy Randall in the middle of all this with her third poetry collection, Suicide Hotline Hold Music. Not only does she not reinvent language, she uses the same vernacular we hear in sit-coms, grocery checkout lines, and the corridors of middle school. Yet manages to put our brains on “refresh” mode, looking at ourselves and the world differently. I attribute this to her unique voice; perfectly balanced (funny but not too funny; weird yet recognizable; whimsically satirical) to fulfill the directive for suicide hotlines, as stated in her title poem: “the main thing is to keep them on the line.”

 

On this point, Randall’s voice permeates both the comics and the poetry, managing through her playfulness, subtle wit, and counterpoint between “normal” and wacky, to keep us with her. Her poetry is not so much about the astounding phrase or unheard-of imagery, but rather about a tension between revelation and restraint, the commonplace and the outrageous, a low-key, ordinary walk through a surprising otherworld within. With comics as simple and basic as one could imagine added to mostly brief poems and unassuming diction, she manages to present a surprising and satisfying array of experiential wisdom. Like this example from “Pool Rules,” a list poem whose elements jump from the expected to those which speak apparently to a wider pool:

 

No smoking. No horseplay. There will be

no stealing of your best friend’s boyfriend.

No nose-picking. Say please. In sexual matters,

be generous, but do not think of it that way.

No watch-wearing. No digital clocks. No

t-shirts with sayings on them. Spell *ketchup*

with a *k*. Do not drink to excess. If you must

read a book in the bathtub, be careful. Turn off

cell phones unless you enjoy subtle disdain.

 

This is how I like my rules, in what seems like no particular order, yet whose order gives it the element of surprise. But in case that strikes you as too suburban, she already admitted to suburbanizing New York (“I Ruined New York”: “I’m the one who wrecked … the alive, excited state of the streets, the way the museums embraced everyone who came in”) and has passed through the “Nine Circles of Motherhood Hell” (a poetry cartoon), the best defense of mothers I’ve seen in a long while. (See below.)

photo1

The title’s mention of “suicide,” couched as it is in “hold music,” almost imperceptibly acknowledges the human condition, its necessity to deal with death and despair. If this book was meant as a sort of antidote, it may well have succeeded. I found myself drawn back to it when, sans hotline, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Maybe it was the wisdom of the “Food Diary of Gark the Troll.” Or more likely, knowing things could be worse—knowing I could have been “The Girlfriend of Time,” who ended up with “a face full/ of ectoplasm and no one to cry to.”

 

The unspoken element here is that her poems ring true. Social commentary slips through the comedic approach with a sleight of hand in which neither overwhelms the other. One of my favorites is this:

 

The Practice Children

 

“assignments might include divvying up responsibilities in a ‘practice house’ that sometimes even included ‘practice children’ borrowed from local orphanages.” —Emily McCombs, “Home sweet Home ec,” Bust, August/September 2009.

 

We know we’re only for practice. It’s

a comfort to us. Nothing we do has any

long-term effect, so we can behave perfectly,

for a time, win prizes for our goodness and then

it’s right back on the bus home again,

regular life waiting for us, the bunk beds,

the dinner trays, the horrible bathrooms.

We’re practicing, too. We’re practicing on you.

 

Here she explores the word “practice” itself and the psychological cruelty of its use through the voice of the children, “we.” This in itself acts as both a rebuttal to and exposition of the callous negation of the children’s individuality in the quote. Without showing anger or speaking out of character, the children’s voice creates a subtle jab at the quote’s moral vacuity with “earn prizes for our goodness” and “regular life waiting for us.” Here the words “goodness,” “regular” and “perfect” are used to poignant and satiric effect. Of course, the best part is the last line, where the “practice children” turn the tables. We can only guess what that involves.

 

Part of what’s trending in poetry now is genre-bending. By including poetry comics, Randall can certainly check that box. What interests me most is that although poetry comics is an amalgam of words and graphics, with the latter usually dominant, her voice remains a constant in both. The simple and down-to-earth (or TV) language is the same in both. The graphics too are simple and down-to-earth, giving the sense that anyone could do it. It’s a matter of the same wit and casual tone interspersed with quirkiness, applied differently. That the poems are mostly short and the comics simple certainly holds the notoriously short modern attention span. She fills that short space with observations that keep us reading. As one might imagine, in experimenting with a medium, some efforts will be more successful than others. In her quest for brevity, for packing subtle meaning into the simplest and most rudimentary of graphic and verbal juxtapositions, a few of her poems and comics fall flat in their restatement of the obvious. If she was banking on sparsity itself as a poetic device juxtaposed with the humor of oversimplification, it works sometimes but not all of the time—although this is more a matter of subjectivity and taste than fatal flaw. What we get in return from her “investment” is that even what doesn’t seem to say much does so out of understatement. So you’re underwhelmed? Turn the freaking page..!.. Now that’s better.  It may be a letdown in the sense that one, expecting a ladybug, finds a potato bug. But was that really so bad?

 

Which brings up the issue of what we hope to find in literature. Since Randall’s work really takes on some of the features of what I described above as “lowbrow”—accessibility, common language, comics (as opposed to the Visual Poetry use of blurry typeface as Art), humor, and brevity—she may find herself not only straddling genres, but worlds as well: the Art world as opposed to the Pop world. Rewinding history a bit, this has been done successfully by no less than Shakespeare, who wrote plays for the common man, not a literate culture, made accessible via theatre. There has always been a back-and-forth between the Cultured and the Boor; education (think middle school) forms an equalizer in modern society. By harkening back to a younger school age, Randall leaves the post-grads in a quandary: this is not your MFA-certified material, so is it Poetry? Even poetry comics can be done with more finesse, in technicolor no less. It’s…well, what is it? Whatever it is, it’s New! And that means unique.

photo2

So here we are, in this era of depression and despair, Trump looming like a giant bully on the horizon, the 99% counting yachts while we count imaginary sheep, suicide hotlines sprouting everywhere, and I do not, on certain days, really want to hear long odes by Jorie Graham. I want to hear the sound of  “Everybody’s Hair in Middle School.” Literally. A couple of awkward pie graphs of love and I’m good to go. This may not be what Jason Guriel hoped for when he complained in “Why Is the Great American Poem So Hard to Write?” about how the world needs “a poem, not just poetry. That’s what our era is lacking, claims a growing chorus of pundits. . . .” Randall may not write the Great American Poem, her work may not be what some say ought to be done, but she does write “self-contained” original pieces and collects them into her book like (her cartoon of) boyfriends in a candy box. There’s a place on my bookshelf for that.photo2 (1)

 

 

Balancing_Acts_cover

Can modern poetry ever be sublime? Variations on this question—Is epic poetry dead? Are any modern poets truly Great? Is modern poetry doomed to be the verbal selfie?—all seem focused on the plethora of similarly-styled modern poems that skew toward the personal as opposed to the epic (in the larger sense), that eschew grand themes and sweeping visions for personal vignettes and points of view, the image for its own sake, language for its own sake, minutiae. Yahia Lababidi’s poetry, in his new comprehensive collection Balancing Acts, takes another direction, quite consciously balancing his own life experience against higher things, not only spiritual but also philosophical. While not epic poetry, these poems take us to another level of understanding in the visionary sense, actively reaching toward enlightenment, something higher.

Each poem balances its everyday sensuous elements, which are quite comprehensive, with a loftier vision. And that vision almost always reigns supreme. His pivotal moments wrestle with great ideas, often his own original ideas and observations. His language, as one might imagine, follows suit. He has no compunctions about using words like “specificity” and “undifferentiation” if they suit his purpose. The whole of language, including the often-spurned abstraction, is useful to him. The first poem in the book, “Words,” gives us his attitude towards language:

Words as witnesses

testifying their truths

squalid or rarefied

inevitable, irrefutable. […]

 

every poem is a cosmos

dissolving the inarticulate.

And indeed, that last couplet sums up what the poet seeks to accomplish. He also sets us up to understand that this book will be about “truths,” about things that are “irrefutable.” This would be the opposite of the current trend in poetry toward avoiding the abstract, proving in fact that philosophy and “pure” ideas can be presented or discussed in poetry without cliché or prosaic generalization.

He asks, for example, what do we understand about animals? To articulate such as-yet-unformed thoughts, he does not describe an animal in the usual way. Instead, the poet chooses a more philosophical exploration, asking “What Do Animals Dream?” (the poem itself being a series of questions):

Are there agitations, upheavals, or mutinies

against their perceived selves or fate?

 

Are they free of strengths and weaknesses

peculiar to horse, deer, bird, goat, snake, lamb or lion?

 

Are they ever neither animal nor human

but creature and Being?

In asking such questions, we face the dissolution of species in a moment in which consciousness itself is contemplated. The issue of animal vs. human is explored further in “Dog Ideal”, a tour-de-force of poetic reasoning that crescendos to where the dog becomes something akin to a zen master…possibly better. And not the way one might expect, but, as he argues earlier in the poem,

unconcerned with the pursuit of truth

and other lies

they live in Truth

 

never lost in the labyrinth of self

they are without self-image,

thus without self-deception

This is not another tale of the faithful dog often memorialized in literature; this is a philosophical exploration in poetry of dogness itself. He balances the facts of a dog’s life against important philosophical issues, and the comparison articulates a dog’s cosmos for us as seen through that lens. Of course, who we are as human beings is the subtext of this discussion of dogness, and by the end we can see where the dog has succeeded in ways that our very minds have doomed us to fail.

Or our hearts, as in this excerpt from the same poem:

honest in their need to give and receive

a love neither tormented nor tormenting

nursing their wounds without meditation,

which is the creation of more suffering

Grounded in science and reason, but aimed toward the spirit, his words engage both thought and experience to achieve their revelations. His poem “Dawning” describes the similarity of human change to plate tectonics:

As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent

some thing will give, croak or come undone

so that everything else must be reconsidered

In “Solitude and the Proximity to Infinite Things,” the desert is depicted as a force of nature to be reckoned with, its remoteness and sense of infinity making it a place “without heart.” Yet it is in that very place, “set apart,” where we can find the sublime, as in “Desert Revisited:”

incorruptible starting point

inviolable horizon

where eye and mind are free

to meditate perfection […]

 

experience quietude

the maturity of ecstasy

longing to utter

the unutterable name

Here the mind’s power transforms one’s environment while finding its own place in synch with the heart. These poems do not present “realization” as an end, as so often typifies “spiritual” writing. Rather, they form a gentle laying out of possible paths, ways of seeing and being. Here, to be enlightened is to return from the heights of concept, of “realization,” back to the heart.

As in the poem “Heart,”

The heart has its treasons

that reason does not know—

why it must cheat, lie, even die

just to stand a chance at rebirth.

This wisdom of the heart transcends logic and yet, in Lababidi’s cosmos, is not at war with it so much as offering us a takeoff point for those questions unanswerable by logic or philosophy alone. Such “rebirth” and the truths that are revealed by seeking it need a “poetry of feeling” which appeals to the senses and the intuition, beyond the “labyrinth of self” and “the conceit of thought,/ the paralysis of analysis” (from “Dog Ideal”).

Nothing, of course, can be sublime or grand without first being tested. These poems take us through more difficult and meandering routes, to familiar places we imagined perhaps as of no significance. Such as in “Hotels:”

Come, check into these dens

you patrons of boredom, lust

and pay-per-view entertainment

 

Such privileged inmates

showered simulated warmth

impatiently switching channels

 

You do not see yourselves

as the night does, shadows

in a flickering monster screen

This is no didactic poem; rather, it makes us picture a world where everything is of consequence. In the poem “Inheritance,” observing what we inherit from our progenitors shows that consequences derive not from the reality we present to others as true, but all the defects and awkward facts we seek to cover up:

We inherit the things we abhor

the unsightly clunkers we scorned

and vowed to forsake as décor […]

 

Hardly, the heroic public stances, more defeatist private habits

precious little of the extolled self discipline, gleaming courage

or magnanimity. In their place, a host of colossal smallnesses

Yet from “a host of colossal smallnesses” can come, with a more enlightened use of the mind, something far better. Although one might expect that an accomplished aphorist, which Lababidi is, would focus on larger issues; such focus is no less influenced by his being an Egyptian, a place where one’s personal life is dominated in many ways by powerful and oppressive or demeaning forces. Writing in English, exiled not only from his home country to which he dedicates this volume but from its language, makes more compelling the sense of there being a grander vision to be found. Without didacticism, and with a sense of beauty and freedom both in life and in the craft of poetry itself, we are offered insights into such things as the root cause of social unrest, in “What Is to Give Light”:

When words lose their meaning

and an entire people their voice—

so they can neither laugh nor scream—

death and life begin to taste the same

Here words are in fact survival tools. Oppression deprives its victims of the means of human expression, even of words themselves, so essential to freedom. “Dissolving the inarticulate” has never been more urgent. And as Jane Hirschfield says in her essay “Spiritual Poetry,” the poetry that rings most true “plunges into the heart of the matter at hand, bearing witness in some essential way.” This is exactly what Lababidi does on matters of highest import, and we as readers, taken way beyond the borders of our selves, are grandly enriched by it.