Who’s There

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In Knock Knock, Hartley has accomplished a humor hat-trick, netting jokes a) in poetry, b) while evoking multiple cultures and c) in multiple languages. Hartley’s comedy is in the absurdity of the details, whether sensory or linguistic.

I’m grateful to the Internet, super-fast jets, and tapas restaurants for allowing me to fancy myself international-as-hell. I get to feel smug when ordering arroz con pollo instead of chicken with rice. I tell myself that I’ve got a handle on international affairs because I followed coverage of ethnic violence in the Kyrgyz Republic. Plus, I can pronounce “Kyrgyz.” Living in the middle of the overwhelmingly huge landmass of the U.S., it’s nice to be surrounded by technology that allows me to feel connected.

That’s an illusion, of course – not in the Buddhist “reality is an illusion” sense or the postmodern “Is anyone really connected?” sense, but in the sense that most high-def webcams in the world will not communicate the hilarious poignancy of reading a menu, poorly translated into English, in Russia. They can’t capture the sexualized complexities of tutoring a lanky French student in English or, in that same breath, creating a linguistic dance between “La Marseillaise” and the U.S.’s Pledge of Allegiance.

None of my trappings of modernity can achieve these, but Heather Hartley’s debut collection, Knock Knock, does.

In Knock Knock, Hartley, a West Virginia native living in France as the Paris Editor of Tin House, shifts between cultures and languages with the nonchalant ease of a 1950’s carhop. She said in a recent interview, “when you’re living with two languages, you’re sleeping with both. You have to make room in the bed for both. I dream in French now. It insinuates itself; it arises from inside.”

The linguistic and cultural subtleties required to be funny are notoriously difficult to capture in another language; and, let’s face it—in search of laughs, most people will flip to Comedy Central rather than the poetry section of Powell’s. In Knock Knock, Hartley has accomplished a humor hat-trick, netting jokes a) in poetry, b) while evoking multiple cultures and c) in multiple languages. Hartley’s comedy is in the absurdity of the details, whether sensory or linguistic.

In “New Year’s in Napoli: Twenty-four Resolutions and Curses,” she asks, “Is it bad luck to eat the salami of a dead man?” and, later, explains, “There is a word in Italian that has to do with superstition— / Scaramanzia—it sounds like scarecrow, manic, zits. . . . It means spleen, tradition, godsends.” Hartley embroiders absurdist wit through this poem without sacrificing its tone of sensual, otherworldly heartbreak.

Or consider “Full Pleather Moon,” the first of Hartley’s prose poems, about a man carrying a toilet seat on the subway:

. . . He has caught me looking at him, looking as if I wondered where he might be going with that in his possession. All of a sudden, I have to pee. Now. He blinks at me worriedly and hugs the seat closer to his chest . . . he stands, grasps the portable loo as the doors open and then, flushed, takes his full pleather moon onto the next stop.

It’s risky to base a poem on what elsewhere would be a sophomoric pun. When it comes to wit, Hartley understands that there’s no art without risk. Here, she rejoices in the pun by repeating multiple “moon”s in an imagistic litany that meditates on shame and the gaze, possession and dispossession, absurdity in the face of human mortality and vice versa. Hartley understands that humor and humanity are as inextricable from each other as a homograph is from its various meanings.

Comedians will tell you that timing is everything, and Hartley’s sense of rhythm, whether for jest or prosody, is clear as a rimshot. Lines like “This is a place where all the keepsakes are sleeping” and “ . . . the limpid light / of banker’s lamps are colored absinthe green” showcase a knack for metric balance. Words flirt with each other through slant rhyme and echo, making it clear that every word has been measured and re-measured carefully. Some of Hartley’s shorter poems showcase these strengths best, as in “To My One Love’s Letter”:

There’s not enough flesh
To express what I mean—
Suffice it to say
My heart is the verb
You conjugate perfectly.

Unfortunately, elsewhere, some poems focus too much on the alphabetical. Every lovely “M marks the spot / dark and hot” or “alphabet of limbs” is counterbalanced by something like “Epilogue in a City Garden,” where the letters created by the “many chapters” lived by an elderly couple – “her back in the shape of an ‘n’” and “his . . . hand . . . curves a ‘c’ around her frail waist” – may feel like predictable alphabet soup, especially when juxtaposed with more inventive uses of the conceit elsewhere in the collection.

Hartley’s longer pieces are thick with detail and allusion, like one of the best examples, “Nudes in a New England Barn,” where models painted by artists from Modigliani to Bacon gather among the hay. The poem’s last section, focusing on “The woman, the real one . . . the one with aches and pains and sighs, the one with tired eyes” brings this study of the imaginary into sharp relief. At the top of her game, Hartley is queen of the punchline. She draws a riddle in vivid, fleshy detail across an entire poem and, at the end, tosses the answer to the reader like a glistening set of keys.

In her weaker poems, however, the layered allusions smother any argument the poem is trying to make, and layer-upon-layer of details, while sharp, may fail to create any human connection with the reader. These poems can be guilty of overstatement, as in the prettily-written “The Bibliothèque nationale.” In a poem where all six elegant lines describe a library, the promisingly piquant final line, “In their hands are little blocks of god:,” ends with the redundant “books.”

Of course, it’s the curse of the ex-pat: You carve out a miraculous life that most of us will only see via tour bus; but you don’t quite fit into your native culture anymore; and, by virtue of your birthplace, you can’t completely integrate into your adopted culture. At worst, the poems in Knock Knock suffer from that curse, hovering in a netherworld between the allusive witticism of European art and the ground-level emotionality of U.S. culture. At their best, though, they celebrate those contradictions, creating a rare mix that’s challenging, gratifying, and doesn’t require a high-speed connection.

Saara Myrene Raappana’s most recent poems appear or are impending from Harvard Review Online, The Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, and The Gettysburg Review. She’s a managing editor for Cellpoems, a journal that distributes poetry via text message. On good days, by the grace of T9, she can text ten characters per second. More from this author →