Pastries, Cowboy Music / That Kind of Shit

Reviewed By

Reading, and re-reading these poems, you’ll find lines which are so outrageous, hilarious, and true that they get lodged in your head, like songs; and, you’ll find yourself quoting the poems to others, because they seem so apt in their ungainliness.

What’s to love about poetry? I mean really. Most of your friends that aren’t poets can’t stand the stuff, and even some of your literati friends (the novel reading ones, say) try really hard, but can’t quite commit. I mean, the way experience is embodied in a poem is about as similar to other kinds of literature as a hog is to a javelina. I’m happy to report that this is a poem you can love:

Me & My Falcon

I’m reserving a copy
of Half-shaved Head
for you Clay
who haven’t looked into
your own face
for five lives now
just send back cupcake
cups of water
flattened down Wonder Bread
scripture & Guidelines
will I leave a half glass
on the counter?
I won’t. I’ll always
drink it up.

This poem appears in John Coletti’s first full-length collection Mum Halo, out from the estimable Rust Buckle Books. It demonstrates many of the extremely pleasurable qualities of Coletti’s work: the personal tone, in which a speaker addresses a friend directly, by name; the line-centered thinking, in which poem expands, contradicts, and explodes each idea or hurt it seems to put forward; the musicality, so careful and so surprising in it effects, and finally, the almost impossible way the poem ends, bringing all the unruly activity firmly back to the personal, a wounded, heartfelt, and mysterious thing. Reading, and re-reading these poems, you’ll find lines which are so outrageous, hilarious, and true that they get lodged in your head, like songs; and, you’ll find yourself quoting the poems to others, because they seem so apt in their ungainliness. This is a stupendous book and its poems seem like they’ve always been here, alongside our thinking.

The business of the personal is always vexed in new poetry. There are lots of reasons for this, of course, part of our general cultural irony, our love of the artificial, and maybe even a distrust of authenticity, and it’s heartening that some younger poets engage with the material world emotionally, and Coletti’s able to do this without coming off self-obsessed, exhibitionist, or boring:

Kathleen

Wide yellow butterfly
club level watermelon
your bus won’t
make a heart shape
of me

Such delicate evasions, bringing it all back to the heart! I just love “club level watermelon.” One of those lines that make no sense-sense, but make all the sense in the world.

One of the most remarkable elements of Coletti’s work is the way the lines interact. The poems seems like “piles” or “stacks” of lines, calling to mind early assemblage art, except that the assembled objects are things perceived, brought together within the order of the poem, and the lines’ strange electricity come from the way the perceptions rub against each other:

Flower Pot Inlay

I do not accept lawnmower turtles in love
progress inanimate buzz wings no
jasmine cabbage and bark life for me
feet asleep in California
clay hearts circle Faberge
bird-rabbits punch breeze
oozing optical mall trestles
my perception of violence
mist rusting autumn sky
I like my little secret
only hurts myself

Because the poems eschew punctuation, the primary unit of organization is the lines, and their juxtapositions and abstractions are gorgeous in a craggy, difficult, but never grouchy or icy way. This feels close to the way one thinks and feels in the world – it’s not ordered, not a stay against confusion, but is almost a celebration, even of the hurts: “bird-rabbits punch breeze / oozing optical mall trestles / my perception of violence.” The poems feel lived-in, and track very closely the way wholes are made from collections of details, thereby avoiding the kind of generality that haunts abstract ideas, or, in poetry, abstract images. For example, a line as superficially abstract as “progress inanimate buzz wings no” is, it seems to me, really a moment of sensation rendered as purely as language can do. I think this is what they mean when people speak of ‘phenomenology,’ and if it is, I like it.

You already know it, if you’ve read this far, but these poems are finely hewed, if off-kilter, bits of slangy musical speech. Coletti makes sounds like: “Funny PC how serenely go wackadoo,” “Empire’s fungal hush,” “piling Oui in creek wheat,” and “Christian spaced out, slowly alive.” The concentration on music is never rote, and Coletti never seems to let himself write a flat line, which is a great relief – it is dream data, after all. From “Fat Looking”:

Perforated ah, faded will of Toothacher
I smell a bridge
made of natural bugspray
my ear, the one that works
has a big crossbow coming out of
its Spanish lifter, soldier

I’m not sure another poet could get away with such lines, but because Coletti’s poems are written by a person, an “I” in the poem, and because they are so often addressed to others, the poems, even at their most difficult, evince a dare I say “friendly” (even in hard times) approach to the kind of material that other poets, perhaps those less concerned with the “charm or luxury of the poem,” might make bombastic, arid, or just plain old pretentious? Like, I mean, this poem is almost a Cognitive Science experiment!

In surprising and various ways, the final lines of these poems often provide the space in which the junk, dailiness, childhood, friendship, tenderness, and comedy that Coletti so freshly presents in the earlier lines come into sharp focus. In the final lines, the material world’s worlds confusions and joys are often brought to bear on problems of the heart. It’s like that Linton Kwesi Johnson song, when he says “This song will go on / in your MIND!” and they put this super-dubby echoplex effect on his voice (“in your mind…in your mind…in your mind”). I think we poet readers think of this as being “haunted” by a poem, but that’s the wrong word. Here, look at this:

Is Beth Here?

Some vague emotional long leaves
read backwards
become permanent
footnotes of greediness
white flowers whiter than night
woods in tablecloth
rented a limo
picked up some propane
then straight to IKEA
w/you, hollow word
plumper emblem
proof the refuse
still be friends

I’m just slayed by these final four lines – YOU, the idea of YOU, is a “hollow word” a “plumper emblem” and “refuse,” and the fact that, despite the betrayals of language, one can still be friends with the YOU – one could almost ask the word YOU “Is Beth here?” Is she in the word YOU?

Like I said, reading poems that cut to the quick and slide around inside one another is tough music, but, the pleasures of poetry lie in that flirtation, in that dare, and poems can still allow us to touch a person, not some character, not some words. And that’s a real gift, and it’s always been rare. I’ll take Coletti’s echoes and intimations any day.


Jared Stanley is the author of the full-length poetry collection Book Made of Forest (Salt, 2009) and four chapbooks, including How the Desert Did Me In. He lives in the San Joaquin Valley with an historian and a couple of rabbits. More from this author →