Sommer Browning’s Either Way I’m Celebrating shows effervescence, delight in language, and whimsy, even as it hides more introspective and severe undertones. Taking elements of surrealism from the Ashbery branch of American poetry, Browning also shows elements of Dobby Gibson and Juliana Spahr, though as her own inimitable recipe.
The book also includes many of Browning’s cartoons, and I greatly admire her ability to pursue two “genres” in one text; even though the cartoons somehow feel like an afterthought, they give so much pleasure and add interest to her theme of finding quirky or ironic beauty in the mundane travesties of life. I’ve had a fantasy of combining cartoons and poems in a single book for 30 years, and she’s done it in a terrific, if not inscrutable way.
The best poems in Either Way I’m Celebrating are her longer and more ambitious poems. For example, “The Meat from the Dream the Heart Knows” uses different kinds of syntax and diction to create a sensation of layers of interrupting voices not always the poet’s. Like most of the book, this poem uses humor as its basic tone, but veers into realms of seriousness when the humor becomes for the speaker another route to delusion or disappointment. In “Officer and a Gentleman” the speaker plays charades and tries to guess the name 1982 Richard Gere romance. The reader thinks the poem will be an exercise in nutsy goofhead-ness as double-entendres and witticisms give way a more serious comment about gender.
In “Notes About Art Pepper” Browning uses fragments of acute observations and ideas to say something surprising about the discrepancies between the ideal and the decaying physical reality—of art, of Art Pepper, and of the art of writing. “Something he said, tender harshness./ A child pulls a dandelion out of soil. A row of wind-crooked trees/ becomes unbearable. Want to hear a great knock-knock joke?/ Ok, you start.” This ingenious riff on the life of a heroin-destroyed alto saxophonist is one of the highlights of Either Way I’m Celebrating.
The centerpiece of the book is a section of untitled prose poems “Vale Tudo”, a reference to an “anything goes” style of Brazilian mixed martial arts. An unnamed couple tries—but fails—to watch mixed martial arts on motel pay-per-view as they verbally and without words box each other into submission. Browning has special ability and skill in getting the details right (what’s in the mall food court, getting the verb “squeaked” for a silk tie, etc.). The poem shows the highways, the birthplace of Walt Whitman, the boring scenery, and the decay of a boring relationship. Her poem is admirable not only for the tone of the human voice speaking in it, but for its ways of combining narrative, lyric, comic, and tragic elements; it’s a coming of age story, a road trip comedy, a romance, and a critique of capitalism. It has great style and quality of style.
Sometimes the strengths of Either Way I’m Celebrating are its weaknesses; sometimes, particularly in the shorter poems that inevitably lack momentum to create textures of tone, the speaker gives the sensation that she’s the smartest one in the room, an increasingly annoying quality. Check out the list of her other 21 books! Including one from 1985! What is a reader supposed to make of this? Are they self-published? Are they chapbooks? In an age when consumption versus production is a vital point in the making and reading of poetry, I find this list unnerving. This feeling extends to some of the poems. For instance, in “Feel Better” she says: “My audience uses semi-colons / accurately; I am a whole ass” and the rhetorical “Is this how people fuck until they’re not angry anymore?” The winking can be construed as a form of bullying because the speaker tries to manipulate the reader’s feelings without revealing her own. This manner of poem is a little a dessert from a chain restaurant: overpowering sugar with no depth. It’s a cartoonist’s dilemma: once you’ve hit the punch line there is no place to go.
Elsewhere this breeziness is diluted and made palatable by quick turns of the tone or the imagination. In “Don’t be Afraid to Help Sharks”, the poem begins “So we had all these rayguns”, but ends with “Gooey, out there beyond the yew.” There is an interesting leap to get to the sound play in the end and the poem is open to allow such a transformation. Yet, like many undergraduate poem that tries to mask lack of technique and skill with sarcasm and irony, the weakest parts of Either Way I’m Celebrating should have been revised or left out (e.g. “Still Life”). The book is too long for my tastes.
Either Way I’m Celebrating shows a kind of bravery that equals a kind of wisdom. In both her poems and cartoons, Browning shows an attractive, expansive, connection-making intelligence and cleverness that is supreme. I look forward to her next book. It is doing things in poetry in a subtle and endearing way; she proves to be a creative dynamo.