Heather Hartley’s second collection of poetry, Adult Swim, is an assembly of delightful, vibrant poems in which the reader is invited to swim through experience and language. Published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, the collection is a literary jetpack; it straps itself around you and flies you across continents, over longings, cancers, top hats, lobsters, and more.
I first discovered Hartley’s work in her first collection, Knock, Knock, when teetering on a narrow ladder in the poetry section of Galignani Bookstore in Paris. I was charmed by her poems’ wit, intellect, and playfulness. The energy behind her second book is even more inspiring and invigorating: Each piece experiments with structure, punctuation, and use of white space. Her experimental orchestration of language and form allows both freedom and imagination, and just as you turn the page, the experiment starts again from scratch. At the same time, there’s a depth at Adult Swim‘s core. Hartley describes intimate moments, each one a sort of controlled chaos. Her jump-start verbs, exclamations, abbreviations, and a rare concoction of vocabulary makes this collection particularly sensuous. If, as reader, you’re dead-set on reading traditional form, Adult Swim is not for you. But if you’re in the mood for vivacious imagery and an uplifting spirit, I highly recommend this book.
Picasso once explained that he painted objects now how he saw them, but how he thought them. Hartley does the same with poetry, transmitting ideas directly via language, instead of simply images, and creating an intimate vacuum between her thoughts and the page. In this collection, she relies heavily on the musicality and the variety of language. Her poem “Jules & moi” is one example of this:
…To stone columns where Madeleine meets magenta (church not girl not
my runaway jury of girls) as clouds part to Madura,
We move closer to the sky’s crux
Up & back to where we began, unfamiliar, le Cardinal—sun starts
slanting by tables. This just happened: dreadlocks, and who
is Gus anyway & why isn’t he here with us—it’s the last cut of the scissors.
The melange of thoughts Hartley works through here is surreal and unapologetically enigmatic; meanwhile it shows a skillful use of assonance in runaway, crux, sun, Gus, us. This recurring sound emphasizes the jovial rhythm of a stroll around Paris, as the poem gives us glimpses of the city—the Stanislas school, Notre Dame des Champs—and pulls us along with keenness and attention to detail. Later, Hartley uses the same assonant vowel sounds to conjure the scene’s tranquility: “park benches & sun, green, un- / aggressive in mid-year.”
Meanwhile, the ampersand, which appears four times in “Jules & moi,” serves as a landmark of sorts throughout the book, and intervenes in crucial moments, as in the final poem of the collection, “Syrenka.” Syrenka—a Polish cognate of siren—translates to “mermaid” in English, and comes from a Warsaw legend about a singing mermaid in the Old Town port. In this chain-of-thought poem packed with ampersands, Harley’s speaker imagines herself as a mermaid during a job interview, and upon being rejected, decides “some- / times in life you have to go in the direction you have to go / & sometimes that’s straight to the sea.” This free association and use of the ampersand give these poems a fearless quality, and an unaffected candidness this speaker can’t keep in.
Hartley’s poems are set around the world. In them, the speaker carries a “father through the gates of Budapest” in her arms, watches “prostitutes lean into motorbikes while a man (sells) black lace fans with a Saint’s face” in Naples, sees a “block of sun” in Pittsburgh, and looks for Vallejo’s grave in Paris. Each city allows Hartley to hone in on its own unconventional chaos:
…A man sells card board boxes in Spaccanapoli. He
says, ‘O Decumanus! Our Greek Streets! And not
far away, you can eat al-
most sweet potato crocchè & calzone filled with ricotta, be-
cause you eat before you eat, & there goes
another bride, white before white.
Here, someone’s always getting married—
Hartley’s interest in chaos and spontaneity continues in the poem “In the Salon of Madame Miklos Radnoti,” which begins with an epigraph from Miklos Radnoti’s Clouded Sky: “The road whinnies and rears up. The sky gallops. You are permanent within me in this chaos.” Hartley’s poem brings us to a conversation in Budapest about Russians, coffee, and loss, as Dido the dog droops in a heat wave. The drama of this poem—cigarettes, aging, and disappointment—creates a quiet chaos in itself: “The pleasure / to read is gone, she says, we will drink black coffee, / she says, I had long hair once, she says, / I am a living tombstone.” Here, Hartley writes with a compassionate gesture, sharing the reality of loss before swimming on through life anyway: “may I ask / we carry this between us— / the sky, coffee cups, chaos.”
Rarely do the poems in Adult Swim strike dark chords; it’s a book of eccentric curiosity, joyous experience, and eager advice. Yet Hartley does shift occasionally to she a stripped down, vulnerable side, implying a “kind of grace and disgrace at the same time— / the way we live our lives.” Even amidst the vulnerability, however, the message of Adult Swim is to “rise, rise, rise.”