Suicide Hotline Hold Music
by Jessy Randall
Red Hen Press, 2016
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.)
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.
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.