If you read contemporary surrealist poetry instead of the newspaper, you might believe that everyone has been abducted. Every human has a ghost in her back pocket and we all get our own violent deer. We live in a magic forest—even those of us in cities. The trees are talking and they’re talking loud.
Our surrealist newscasters document the inherent strangeness of existence. They document it slantwise, and their work makes for transcendent experiences—some of which grab our hearts and lift them out of the subways. But there are moments when we might crave a more direct reportage of everyday peculiarities.
Jamie Iredell is a poet who says: Yes, things are freaky right here. You don’t even need to be abducted to experience the weirdness. Let’s catalogue these entities that make up our reality. Let’s explore them and give them their due, because isn’t it odd that they exist at all? And isn’t it magic that we exist at all?
In The Book of Freaks, a new collection of prose poems from Pacific Northwest indie press Future Tense Books, Iredell surveys the landscape of our modern existence and creates an alphabetical catalogue of freakishness. But this is no Rand McNally; what makes the collection exciting is Iredell’s delicious sense of humor, his play with language and the dexterity with which he varies his voice.
Each of the entities featured in Freaks—from boobs to Gigantomastia to Russians are elements drawn from Iredell’s own orbit or, at least, from his interests. What’s more, the book is self-referential in its own bookishness and redefines textual sundries like blurbs, index (found under “I” and not at the back of the text) and second title page. Yet there is a sense that each of these characters, objects and states of being are liberated from the poet in that he allows them to grow into their own voices and allows for those voices to evolve.
In “A Human,” Iredell begins with what seems like a third-person, categorical portrayal of human beings as a species. “Humans are born normal—like most mammal infants, head first.” He then transitions from a description of universal physical characteristics, “hair strands,” “epidermis” and “fat” to an individual human’s story. The reader meets a man who suffers in city subways from headaches that feel like trains. The man overcomes his city life and endures “today to drive a truck” prompting the reader to imagine if she wouldn’t prefer an alteration to her lifestyle as well. Through juxtaposing the universal with the personal, Iredell invites the reader to more deeply inhabit his characters.
“The Writing on the Wall” is another surprising poem. Rather than delivering an ominous or utilitarian warning as one might expect, “the writing on the wall” is personified as an entity that “lilts along, a feminine hand. Every e curls like a tongue, the word tongue, in fact, tastes the wall.” Iredell then introduces the reader to the creator of this handwriting, a girl in a wheelchair with a nose that is “a road to her mind” and a mother whose voice is “as rough as the wall.” No person or thing is what it seems. There are trap doors and false bottoms. What we believe we know at surface level has a richer story.
Freaks is less successful when Iredell assumes a more stereotypical perspective, such as in the poem “San Franciscans” where “San Franciscans are most fond of their dreadlocks.” Likewise, in “The Haves,” members of the upper-crust drive Cadillacs and Mercedes and ask “Have you been to New York City?” Yet these moments are not mean-spirited. They just don’t live up to the expansiveness of the rest of the text. For the most part, Iredell is a sympathetic poet who explores his subjects from all angles. In “Comic Dork,” he writes:
Sometimes during the comic dork’s nightmares—
bowie knife-wielding bearded goons hanging over
his chest, strapped as he was to the vinyl of the Beetle’s
interior—he’d realize that he was dreaming…
…In the mornings as he brushed his teeth, his
mother lay her Dawn-soft hands on his shoulders, and
rubbed Vaseline into the split of his lip.
While every reader has not experienced a comic dork period, each of us was born to a mother. This unifying thread is both tender and bizarre, and thus—freakdom is not relegated to the tattooed, pierced or comic-loving among us. Iredell infuses the specific—and even brand-name—with the unanimous, in order to depict the universality of freak.
It’s also interesting to look at this collection in terms of the sum of its entities. Each poem may be perceived as only paratactically (or alphabetically) related to the next, but is this a random sampler? How did Iredell choose the subjects of his exploration from infinite others? Aside from their significance to the poet, what do conjoined twins have to do with a chicken fried steak? How does a mountain lion pertain to a colophon? Perhaps it doesn’t; yet the text mirrors waking life in that both entities exist side by side on this plane, and so they are connected. Iredell’s juxtapositions compel the reader to examine not only the oddity of individual entities, but the strangeness of their concurrent existence. It is weird indeed that autofellation and the flea both exist. But what’s even weirder is that we are here to bear witness, and that we are breathing.