When independent publishers want to share copies of a book they’ve not yet printed, they sometimes send bound photocopies of the manuscript to reviewers like me. I tell you this to explain how I was able to draw renderings of plans for my daughter’s ceiling on the back of Michael Bazzett’s new book, You Must Remember This, and also to help explain why I left my first copy of the book in Kansas, and also to tell you a little something about the unpretentious way these poems first presented themselves to me.
The ceiling will be pink, of course. “A smooth pink flatness” like the pinks of hard things we expect to be soft. Like the pinks of childhood, “like those of dolls,” like those of these poems by Michael Bazzett. Pinks that seem uncomplicated at first and then quickly complicate themselves. When I started writing this review, I searched for the word pink in the PDF version of the manuscript Milkweed Editions sent to replace the photocopied manuscript I’d left in Kansas—more on that later—and I found three references to the word. One reference I’ve quoted above, wherein we see a pink like the pink of dolls’ bellies on the stomachs of a distressing body of dream-tranced women. Another reference is in an equally disquieting poem called “The Dark Thing.” The final time the word shows up is in a poem in which a horse is “not anymore” a horse. Bazzett’s poems, like his pinks, keep pleasantly surprising me with their innocent brutality. I’m not sure I have any way to clearly describe this except to say that it is the sort of heart stopping honesty about humanity we see in work like Donald Barthelme’s “The School” or Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson.” Both of these are short stories, I understand, but I’m okay with that because Bazzett’s talky, lyrically twisted narratives seems to ride the same sort of line between story and poem that we see in Borges and chunks of Calvino.
The first drawing I made of the ceiling had scalloped edges. To correct for the inevitable bleeding at the edge between the textured ceiling and the textured walls—walls which I did not want to paint because an artist I admire had already painted onto them a lovely border of flowers, hearts and vines—I would tape off a scalloped edge near the crease between the ceiling and the wall. I’d paint the outer side of the tape-edge white to block bleeding and I’d paint the inner side of the tape edge and all the ceiling’s infill a quieting shade of pink. You’ll find my renderings on the back of a bound photocopy of Michael Bazzett’s book. A copy that is floating around Kansas.
It is important that the book is in Kansas because I am not in Kansas anymore. I was flying to Kansas when I read Bazzett’s book. It felt like something that should have been a cliché but wasn’t, which is the sort of thing I read all over the book. Another way of saying this is to say that just when I thought I knew what I might be getting when I read a line or a poem in Bazzett’s book, I was caught off guard and made to look at the world I thought I knew in a totally different light. Which is also what happened when I arrived in Manhattan, Kansas.
Have you heard the one about the nun and the penguin
in the bathtub and the nun drops the soap
and says to the penguin, Do you think you could
fish that out? And the penguin says…
This is how one of Bazzett’s poems begins. The punch line of the joke is a gut punch, and that punch line doesn’t land where you expect it to land. Few of his poems land where we expect. So when I landed in Manhattan to talk to graduate students in the Creative Writing Program at Kansas State University and one young gentleman showed me a draft of a poem about what it meant to live in Kansas—how frustrating it sometimes is to be so predictably visible as to be invisible—and told me he was looking for poems about the Midwest that weren’t the same old boring thing, I couldn’t help but hand over my photocopy of Michael Bazzett’s You Must Remember This. I know we reviewers aren’t supposed to give away review copies, but that student needed the book right then and there. Poems like this, sometimes, can’t wait to be read.
The second set of plans for the ceiling, also on the manuscript I left in Kansas, were far less complicated—less fussy, less stylized—than the first. They consisted of one rectangle inside another rectangle inside another inside another, so the ceiling would be a narrow band of white, then a narrow band of pink, a narrow band of white, and finally a soft pink infill. My plans might serve as a guide to reading Bazzett’s poems, which often seem to be about one thing framed inside another thing inside another and another. Or they seem to flip—between tonal values—like a hooked flounder. The poems are like that—like looking at a living thing on a hook and wondering if it’s going to be something we release back into the wild or something we’ll consume with pleasure and a squeeze of tart lemon.
The man sitting next to me on the plane to Kansas kept looking at my tray table, at the manuscript and my renderings—trying not to look but still looking—until I acknowledged his curiosity. “I’m painting a ceiling,” I said. “In my daughter’s room. She wants pink, but I don’t want it sweet-pink or she’ll grow bored of it quickly, and I’ll have to paint it all over again.” If you think all this talk about painting a ceiling doesn’t have anything to do with a book of poetry, you’ve not read the book I drew my plans on. You Must Remember This is about the mundane parts of our lives we don’t always turn to in poetry. These mundane parts of our lives are turned, in this book, into poetry. In You Must Remember This the boring is beautiful, but not sweet-pink. When Bazzett is writing about childhood, it is the kind of childhood no one grows out of. So when I say the man sitting next to me said he thought I’d made the right call in abandoning the scalloped-edge plan and going with the straight-edged rectangles, you might understand what I admire in the unfussy style Bazzett uses in these poems. He addresses bleeding with lines that are clear and crisp. It all seems straight forward, what he writes, but then there’s something else inside what he’s writing, and then something else again.