Why I Chose Things Come On

By

Rumpus Poetry Club Board Member Camille Dungy on why she chose Joseph Harrington’s Things Come On as the March selection of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club.

Devastation. Conflation. Preoccupation. Disintegration. Joseph Harrington’s Things Come On (Wesleyan UP) is a book about loss; it’s also a book about what lingers. Coupling details of the Senate’s Watergate hearings with his own mother’s battle against cancer, Harrington’s “amneoir” crosses lines between public history and private confession, memory and the dismantling of memories.

The book is presented in two sections: Investigation and Resignation.  The “terrible rage” triggered by a mother’s cancer and a President’s malignant behavior, preoccupy the poet and conflate:

Brutal irony triggers a terrible rage. Nixon for us had always been the cancer, the cancerer. In America, some one must be to blame. Someone must die, not always the same one. How create a poem or polity where the physical is not a trope?

Nixon betrayed a nation’s expectations.  In the same year, a mother, dying, betrayed her son’s.  Harrington, in turn, betrays expectations of what poetry can and should be, crafting a mash up of lyric lines, excised letters, Senate hearing transcriptions, conversational speech, chilling photographs, medical records, and personal observations. As the Senate did for the Watergate Hearing, Harrington seeks explanations, substantiation, evidence, but it’s as if, in the end, the best way to cope with loss is to reconstitute all boundaries.

Things Come On is, among other things, a book about coping. Harrington writes, “In order to advance, you begin the next list:” and then he begins the next list.  Among other things, Things Come On is a book of lists.  Lists of memories. Lists of forgotten moments.  Lists that include the mother’s shoe size, slip size, girdle size, gown.  Explanations for why he remembers so many of the details of the Watergate hearings. Lists of reasons a woman may or may not break down in the face of unassailable loss. Lists of exercises to help address the pain (which pain? whose pain?) Lists that indicate ways and means of hurting.  “The Desperate Making of Lists.”

These lists are one of the book’s organizing principles.  He calls this “an amneoir,” a combined system of a memoir and amnesia.   I’m as interested in what he remembers as what he forgets.  I’m as interested in why he remembers as why he forgets. Things Come On grapples with how to write about personal loss in a time of more global devastation. It asks, conversely, how to write about global devastation in the face of personal loss.  How can a person continue if his/her preoccupations are of little to no interest to anyone else? “A majority of viewers responded by saying they were ‘tired of Watergate.’ We kept watching as though we couldn’t help it.”  One of the many sets of criterion for how we choose books for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club is that a given selection can sustain online discussions for a month without our members growing “tired.” Things Come On ought to fit this bill.

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Camille T. Dungy is author of Smith Blue; Suck on the Marrow; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is also editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. Dungy has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the Dana Award, and Bread Loaf, is the winner of the 2011 American Book Award, a two-time recipient of the Northern California Book Award, and silver medal winner in the 2011 California Book Award. A two-time NAACP Image Award nominee, she has been shortlisted for the 2011 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, the 2011 Balcones Poetry Prize, the PEN Center USA 2007 Literary Award, and the Library of Virginia 2007 Literary Award. Dungy is currently a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. Her poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies and print and online journals. http://www.camilledungy.com/ More from this author →