It’s 2014. We’re past the year Marty McFly dialed in to his Back to the Future Delorean. We’ve survived Y2K. We’re aware Monsanto owns all the corn we can eat. And the housing bubble burst is still visible on the for-sale signs as we drive through neighborhoods in every part of the economic spectrum.
Oh yeah, we’re also at war. We’re destroying our planet. We’re screaming moral and ethical platitudes at every politician and political decision. And we’re talking about all of this, all the time, in person, with family, friends, and strangers, alongside everyone in the electronic ether. Everywhere it seems we’re walking the streets of our lives, like Diogenes, looking for one honest man (and believing humans can be better than we are). We’re looking for someone like Nick Lantz to teach us How To Dance As The Roof Caves In.
In this, Lantz’s third collection, he blends the individual with the larger public sphere, love with politics, and works to demonstrate that what we take as “signs of the time” are just another part of being human, that we must recognize ourselves and our culture as a both/and situation. In this, Nick Lantz is our honest man. Take the collection’s second poem, “How to Travel Alone,” for instance, alongside the collection’s second section, which is comprised of a long poem titled “How to Stage a Community.” “How to Travel Alone” begins,
The same painting is hanging on all four walls
of my hotel room: Ship at sea.
Ship at sea.
Ship at sea. Ship at sea.
An empty bed won’t say
I love you
until its jaws fall off. The rain believes
the earth exists
just to give it something
to fall against. What can I do
from my dingy little room but close
the blinds and turn up the TV?
In these beginning stanzas we encounter an I who feels alone, partly because the I is alone (and traveling) as the title suggests, but more-so because the I feels alone in the world, like the ship at sea in the paintings on the hotel room walls. Immediately in this poem, the speaker is conflated with the ship, both alone in a large world, and the poem reifies this in the eighth stanza: “…I’m the ship that can’t // find shore, can’t be sunk.” As the poem moves, the “ship at sea” begins to change in its various incantations. At one point the ship appears “where my cousins are still swaying / with the Holy Spirit. Oh ship at sea, they sing, you are / my ark, my raft.” And later, “I eat microwaved cheeseburgers until my stomach // rocks and pitches like a ship at sea,” and later still, “your voice on the phone is like a ship at / Never mind, I found it.” These incantations continue until the poem’s end where, “I write postcards I don’t send. They all start / Dear ship at sea…” until the speaker is finally able to arrive at,
There are only two directions in the map
of my life: the way to you, and the way
I belabor the “ship at sea” incantations because throughout this collection Lantz demonstrates his mastery of both the poetic line and repetition through the reappearing image, as he does in this poem, and I belabor the point because these two craft elements are the driving forces in the poems as individuals and the poems as a community within the collection.
In many of these poems, as in “How to Travel Alone,” the speaker is akin to a metaphoric figure (in this case, the ship), but unlike most poets, Lantz is able to allow his speaker to be both a part of the metaphor and a singular identity that resists the metaphor in the same way we collectively understand ourselves as part of an American culture at war, beholden to Monsanto, at fault for the housing bubble, but also as individuals claiming no responsibility for these things, individuals with lives beholden to a “you” from which we travel to and from.
In the collection’s second section, the long poem “How to Stage a Community,” Lantz switches strategies on us. Here the speaker is part of a couple employed by a relatively vacant housing community hell-bent on selling houses. To achieve this goal the community has hired the speaker and his partner alongside many others (called stagers) to act as if they live in the community, though they don’t. In the first section, “All of These Houses Are Empty,” we learn,
We were hired to park our car
in the driveway, to sit
at the window, to push a toothless mower
back and forth across the ragged lawn…
and in the poem’s eighth section, “Jobs” we meet “One stager” whose
…job is to wash
his car all day, ten a.m.
to three p.m., seven days
a week. He starts at one
bumper, and when he gets
to the other, he starts
In this long poem we meet the “stagers” “living” in this community. We come to know them and their way of life. We understand they “…live in different houses every day / depending on which property the agents plan / to show…” Rather than operating on the repeated image, the sections of this long poem work in tandem to highlight the housing bubble’s effect via the neighborhood vacant because “Someone said Bubble. Someone said Underwater / mortgage. Someone said The great plumed serpent, / which is our currency, has flown away.”
As the speaker discusses the “stager’s” life, we recognize the manufactured nature of community in poems that are honest about the nature of business and the need to recognize housing as a consumer market. Of course this feels manufactured, because it is, and that’s the point. As the poem turns from section to section, we can’t help but face the ideal of community we imagine for ourselves, the idea of settling down and living a happy life, and the consumerist marketplace driving our notions of what that kind of life looks like, what it entails. Yet this speaker isn’t separate from the I in love traveling alone. They are the same, and these are both parts of the same life. This is the kind of honesty I’ve been waiting for for quite some time in a collection of poems. Lantz isn’t offering hope, he’s offering an image of the way we live, which is as revitalizing as it is scary; this is the kind of knowledge we need.
It seems this is precisely the point of this collection: that we do and don’t live in fear, and the paradoxes between what we consider scary and what we consider safe become comforting as the poet’s honesty continues. In “Loyalties,” for instance, we get a glimpse of Lantz’s incredible technical flexibility as he deploys the second person point-of-view seemingly effortlessly. “You can never say enough about the hinge / of the python’s jaw or the nostrils of the shaggy bear…,” the poem begins and then continues,
about your wife, who is now across town, reading
a play about a woman who kills her own
children to take revenge on her husband?…
is yes, years before you met
your wife you were trysting with books
behind the high school gymnasium. You kept
a small notebook folded in your back pocket
the way other boys kept a condom
in their wallets…
In this use of the second person we, of course, recognize the speaker speaking about himself, but we also recognize ourselves, the ones who feel different than everyone else, much like the speaker who earlier identified as a ship at sea. In “Loyalties” as in other second-person poems contained in these pages, we don’t resist the “yous” and “yours,” we embrace them as images of both ourselves and the poet, as both a part of something, and yet still separate from it.
During a recent discussion about teaching technical writing (public writing, writing for the workplace, etc.), my colleague, Kimberly, blew my mind when she made the comment that technical writing is writing, not just for work, but at work, that it’s the art allowing one person to help another because it’s born of need and is immediately used; it’s the marker of process and often the vehicle through which an idea becomes public action [insert Nick Lantz].
I’d always thought of technical writing as the production of resumes, cover letters, professional emails and memorandums, documents that feel cold and lifeless, yet are necessary to all of the things I do on a daily basis. But as Kimberly spoke, I came to see that within its seemingly rigid confines, the documents produced during “technical writing” stand as a markers of actual events (the phone calls, scheduling work, meetings, outlines, proposals, past experiences informing present and future visions) and in this way, such writing is not only vital, but vitally alive [insert Nick Lantz].
While constraints of this review don’t allow me touch on each of Lantz’s achievements here, I have tried to draw attention to How To Dance As The Roof Caves In’s thematic triumph, which is always, in Lantz’s case, allowed because he is a poet whose technical toolbox is deep and varied, because he’s adept at hiding his artfulness while foregrounding his content. This all adds up to a collection that’s as alive as it is accessible, and wants to be, which is something I champion in our moment.
Just as Lantz’s speaker(s) are alone, part of a larger cultural system, and yearning for community (much like us), his poems let us in, they want to be read, and they’re looking for general community. These are the kinds of poems you sit around and have a beer with, grill some burgers, shoot the shit. Yet, they’re also the kind of poems you think of later that night as you lay in bed, saying to yourself or someone else, “damn, that guy’s so honest. He always says what he’s thinking. I need to talk to him some more.”