When James Wright said, “I have wasted my life,” Dan Magers must haven taken it to heart. No, Magers’s debut collection, Partyknife, isn’t about golden horse crap. Well, yes it is.
But instead of lying in a hammock somewhere in Minnesota, Magers is in a basement taking bong hits and listening to Trans Am. Instead of hawks or butterflies, there are people shitting on coke mirrors and “morphing ‘Thriller’-style” in the bathroom. It doesn’t matter; the sentiment is the same. Both poets are writing in a space that, at least on the surface, seems indifferent, a space that if anything only confirms their mortality, and both poets use their speakers in an attempt to gain control of that space. The results are about as comfortable as a hammer blow to the skull. Consider these first three stanzas from the third “track” on Side B of Partyknife:
Sometimes I take a hit and look at the bathroom fan above
and think that it is a strong brown god,
and that I worship him by exhaling smoke at him;
the longer I hold it in and stare,
the better do I worship him.
I could stand to be hurt.
Unlike the speaker in Wright’s poem, the voice in Partyknife isn’t so ho-hum about his epiphanies. He reacts to his surroundings in anxious and violent ways, simultaneously discontented and resigned. Magers’s language unravels with a scatterbrained fervor and his speaker seems motivated by a vague hostility, jealousy, and a sense of hopelessness buried so deep no amount of posturing can help. But Magers, like Wright, allows his voice to be consistently subverted by its own narrative. Whatever Magers reveals as necessary, he also reveals as pointless:
When I learned I can never articulate how I feel,
and that people present themselves
in the exact way I want to be,
that’s what I taught the world about shame.
Partyknife fashions itself as a mix tape—by definition disjunctive, a patchwork that requires a specific lens—about Pratt parties, drinking games, grudge fucking and oblivion. Whoever is holding the partyknife (all poems composed by D. Magers) is steeped in the sort of decadence and condescension associated with young, urban creative types, the usual hipster schlep, all the while stumbling onto abrupt and often absurd realizations: “The punk kid in the punk house laughs at the paint he wipes on my new shirt,/but I am an insane god.” But beneath his brash announcements (“I’m the Jesus of making out with girls drunk”) and shoulder-shrug fatalism (“And when I die, I’ll just be dead”) there is an uneasy relationship between these poems and the world they inhabit, one overburdened by self-importance and skepticism.
As the mix tape suggests, we are living in an artistic culture that is placing more and more importance on appropriation and the curatorial vision, and the old concepts of authenticity appear to have lost their relevance. Magers wonders which expression should warrant consideration. He is both obsessed and disdainful of such a limited and seemingly unsustainable aesthetic, at times embracing the creative modes (“The playlist is completely random,/but I say to understand me,/you must figure out the sequence”), and at others exposing the many fallacies (“I saw myself in someone’s trash./I turn it into onomatopoeia that everyone loves”). Regardless the voice in these poems manages to remain detached and situated to make lucid, sometimes nihilistic, observations: “A great player is sometimes a decoy.” But Magers never lets us believe his speaker’s detachment is complete. In fact, the speaker is the victim to his pessimism, held captive by his delusions:
I want the first time every time.
Like serial-killer normal,
the dream of a perfect reception,
the dream of never going out of style.
It’s this chaotic thought pattern and unreliability that mark Partyknife and give the collection its ironic vitriol. Magers’s poems are constantly on the look out for meaningful expressions. They yearn to be heard and remembered; the speaker desperately wants to be responsible for his life. “I want to look at myself in five years,” Magers writes, “and be gratified.” Together the poems present themselves as a love/hate letter, a set of futile, self-defeating gestures meant to regain something lost, be it love or youth, and in this way Partyknife creates a dialogue about its own artifice: “A gift is not a gift unless you miss it.” Magers acknowledges the value we ascribe to art, and the superficiality that motivates art. If Magers simply wants his speaker to be pleased with himself and his work, he isn’t afraid to admit that those desires are selfish and fraudulent: “Now you know the perversity of the situation.” But what’s key here is Magers’s level of awareness. He recognizes the dilemma as distinctively human: “There’s something beautiful and touching about talentless people making art.//Kneeling at the altar of the merely beautiful.” In effect, Magers establishes a place between high and low art, and leaves his speaker straddling the line. What occurs is a voice that is equal parts bravado and severe self-doubt, invested just as much in his failure as he is with his success.
A persona within a persona begins to develop in Partyknife; the speaker becomes a walking contradiction, conscious of the discrepancies between his private and public selves. Throughout the collection, the speaker is among people who are essentially mild sycophants. “Pretty girls surround me at parties,/chatting me up, but they won’t go home with me,” writes Magers, “They want my essence, not my substance.” But whatever social parasitism occurs, it is always mutually beneficial:
Emotionally available partners line up for my spirit.
My phone is ringing off the hook.
I share my friends with other people,
and they let me help with their sexy problems.
The speaker moves inside a range of social circles, all of them united by their ambition, but despite his immersion he still finds himself cut off from those around him. “I have no idea what these kids are talking about,” he writes, “Lacan and baby food.” Even the closest thing the speaker has to a friend, Dr. Rob, beds his love interest. But however betrayed the speaker feels, he sees it as a betrayal from within: “I worship him, but that’s my fault.” The private speaker’s self doubt and isolation are only complicated by his attraction to literal embodiments, sometimes clichés, of the artistic lifestyle. In one of the few titled poems, “I’m With the Band,” Magers writes, “You’re kind of my hero, getting fired for liking music so much./ /Sleeping on a floor that isn’t yours,//disciplining the body with what it doesn’t want.” Add to this, the speaker’s open participation and need for acceptance in a world he admits is foreign (“I want men to not only like my lyrics,/but to like me personally.”), some textbook namedrops (“I was invited to Richard Tuttle’s house” or “You’re just jealous because I’m friends with John Cale,/and he likes to hear about the girls I fuck.”) and what comes out is a caricature of perverse confidence, an identity that exist only in relation to others, and knows it:
I am a nationally-known public speaker.
Sexy like a Muppet,
guzzling Diet Cokes like I was Bill Clinton,
my blankness in the blankness of Reagan.
It’s out of this corruption of identity, that Magers finds flashes of honesty, those abrupt Wright-like gestures. His shifts in focus and tone glint in jarring ways, each line subverted yet amplified by the next with imperceptible precision. Though it’s often attributed to modern poetry, it’s not a relatively new concept that a multitude of unlike ideas can converge to represent a complete identity. In his collection of essays, The Resistance to Poetry, James Longenbach discusses the role of disjunction in poetry dating back to the Romantics. Longenbach notes that disjunctive writing is closer to the natural, sometimes random act of speaking, and thought patterns too, but more importantly he acknowledges our “wish that something might disrupt the endless continuity of our lives. The soul sliding out of chaos.” For Magers that something is usually painful yet authentic, the endless continuity a synonym for nothingness, the possibility of a life without meaning or legacy. When Magers admits to us, “ I wanted to drown in a vision. I wanted to be talked about a lot,” we can believe he’s telling the truth, as shallow as it seems, because it’s a truth we are ashamed to share.