At this point in the media saturation process, you don’t even need to be much of a culture vulture to catch yourself viewing daily life in cinematic terms. Bombarded, willingly or not, with the types, tropes, and rhetoric found on screens big and small, authenticity has been thrown into question. Insofar as the television, films, and advertising we partake of hold a mirror up to nature at all, that mirror’s undoubtedly of the funhouse variety, convincing us little by little that the distorted humanity reflected on its surface may indeed be us. In his second collection, The Opposite of People, Patrick Ryan Frank scrutinizes this disconcerting feedback loop and its bewildered participants, considering how the heart’s misled by what has riveted.
In The Opposite of People, Frank, a poet with an abiding concern for the precariousness of identity and the complexities of human motivation, continues the exploration of longing and disillusionment begun in his award-winning debut, How the Losers Love What’s Lost. And while no one familiar with that book will be surprised by the wisdom, wit and formal elegance of the poems in The Opposite of People, the new collection draws on Frank’s technical skills and imagination to create a more structurally intricate work.
By dividing the book into three sections—“Day Time,” “Prime Time,” and “Late Night”—Frank has created an ingenious but unobtrusive conceptual structure in which the stages of an ordinary broadcast day intersect with the urges and indignities of daily life. Few of the collection’s persona poems and narratives run beyond a page in length, yet, like any fine entertainment in a crowded media landscape, each garners attention in its own distinct way. Whether considering the consumption or production of the films, television, commercials, and stand-up routines that fill up and flatten out our lives, Frank’s rhetorical poise, inventive rhythmic effects, and illuminating imagination ground these forceful poems.
Frank even casts himself as the lead in several of his productions, wearing the borrowed pathos of these guises with panache. Whether playing an alien stepping out of its skin, the other woman finally giving in, or an informant singing like a bird, Frank uncovers the humanity in the archetypal. One of the least offbeat but most memorable of these star turns, “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Astronaut,” finds Frank going into orbit to gain greater perspective. Looking back on earth from his shuttle’s porthole, afloat in a present that’s somewhere “after congratulations / but before that whirring signal from / the fast-approaching asteroid, the klaxons,” Frank’s astronaut considers the world he’s a part of and apart from:
there’s just this silence and unstartled black
beyond the shuttle’s plastic porthole. There
is the planet, round and blue as a gumball hard
in some boy’s sweating hand. How can this
be real? Nothing left to do but stare
at every single thing he’s thought he’s known
now so small it must all be unimportant—
old men skating, sailors in the ports,
a blond child choking in a parking lot—
if it can be right there and be unseen.
Through its reimagining of stock images, whispery assonance and consonance, and mood-inducing lineation, Frank’s poem breathes new life into cinematic cliché.
Frank brings similar technical and imaginative versatility to another of the collection’s innovations, its “commercials.” Wryly juxtaposed with the poetic programming that surrounds them, the “commercial” poems interspersed throughout the collection find the truth within the advertising trope, capturing the unique tenor and latent desire at the heart of each sales pitch. Whether it’s Frank’s “Commercial for a Personal-Injury Lawyer” coming on the heels of the poem “Makeover,” or his “Perfume Commercial” squeezed between poems about partygoers, these disarming and insightful “commercials” penetrate the often hilariously cynical veneer of advertising and show exactly how real doubts and hungers are being preyed upon. Through his metrical and rhetorical sleight-of-hand and careful selection of resonant detail, Frank translates the directing style of each commercial into the written word with concision and clarity. In the establishing shot with which the poem “Car Commercial” opens, Frank even manages to reveal the wish fulfillment lurking in the imagery of that most trope-prone brand of advertising:
Blue air, black road, red dirt, white car: white coupe
on its straight shot through a cloudless desert, fast
and bright and beautifully framed, metonymy
of a lovely life —spotless, stopless, smooth
unlyricked music and the quickest route
out of monotony and toward the curves
Even in the short space of the poem’s first line, with its reduction of visual detail to an almost elemental level, mechanistic monosyllables, and the appositive enjambed at its end, one can feel the car approaching then whooshing past. Frank’s rendering of a frictionless life where new car owners are free to take impulsive road trips to western states based on nothing more than a near rhyme captures the dumb freedom and control these ads are so good at selling. At poem’s end, with the car traveling through the streets of Manhattan, Frank calls attention to the strange vehicular rapture that seems to have taken place, underscoring the far-fetched appeal of a hassle-free life:
still buildings serious, direct, reflected in
the windows, black so anybody could
be driving, even you, probably you
saying goodbye, dull bungalow, goodbye,
hello A/C, combustion brogue, the road
implausibly empty, flat, implausible sky.
That the car you drive can feel like a referendum on the loveliness of your life is both a gross admission and a real one. It’s this type of squirm-inducing truth in advertising that the “commercial” poems in the collection expose so well.
Many of the collection’s most affecting poems deal with our diminished ability to distinguish between authentic feeling and the histrionic overlay that familiarity with the tropes of film and television have bred into daily life. More insidious than just serving as a handy way to categorize people and paraphrase experience, Frank shows how even the way we view the phases of life can seem predicated on what we see up on the screen. In “Ex Ingénue,” the poem’s speaker recounts an indelibly odd weekend stay with a wayward aunt and grapples with the meaning of this childhood experience. Frank stresses the exemplarity of this superannuated ingénue right up front, beginning the poem by withholding speculation about what exactly the importance of the this weekend stay was. In doing so, he allows the reader to share in the speaker’s bewilderment and turns what could have remained a finely wrought character sketch into a much more interesting meditation on memory and impressionability: “One weekend spent with a thin, blonde spinster aunt, / with her tulip-covered sofa, chocolates, her cough / as she talked through war films with the sound turned off [.]” With its militaristic imagery, sinuous sound work, and judiciously deployed double meanings, the poem manages to seem both comically surreal and grounded in the matter-of-fact:
[. . .] Her laughter
was low and long, a smolder when I left her
to another summer smoking on the lawn
in a faded orange bathing suit and tan lines,
watching for the mailman at the gate—
hers was the patient glory of the landmine
waiting for a foot’s right weight.
Cougar on the prowl? Beloved character lost to time? First experience of an adult who shirked their proper role? In this poem and others Frank shows remarkable restraint, letting evocative details and the order of their relation testify to the authenticity of the speaker’s emotion.
Such subtle modulation of voice and knack for the memorable line gives his work a Larkinesque immediacy and intimacy. Both of these qualities are on full display in the tour de force, “This Must Be the Place.” In the poem, the narrator’s suspicion—fostered by the movies—that there’s a world out there more actual than the one that actually is, triggers a meditation on daily life with its boilerplate pleasures and nagging concerns. The poem’s opening lines, with their considered metrical imbalance and intricate rhyme scheme, establish a confiding tone well before the poem’s disclosures come:
Autumn, a rental, a radio, and a map—
another man excuses himself from the highway
to look for the actual world: a tourist trap,
a town that hasn’t had its trigger pulled,
those pretty girls about to fly away.
The sense that the narrator, fed up with being unable to view himself as anything but a character in his own soul-searching drama, is actually narrating his own experience becomes even more pronounced when the poem switches from third person into suspiciously particular second person:
You understand why your grandparents spent
their decades with that television set,
polished wood and full of weather: snowstorm,
snowstorm, static through the night.
Watch it long enough, it must be life.
Somewhere, a man casually loves his wife;
a woman sitting on her sofa says,
goddamn or hallelujah or not today;
and somewhere near, the deer and foxes do
what deer and foxes do, unseen, unknown.
Someone who looks like you drives into town.
Nothing special: some stores and a bar or two,
kids in the park beside the Eagles Hall,
old women enjoying the last of this weather, warm
as the wind picks up and the red leaves start to fall.
A special reverence for these “nothing special” moments of casual enjoyment, experienced without comparison to another way of being, crops up at several points throughout the collection. And yet even the poem’s title, “This Must Be the Place,” with its seeming nod to the Talking Heads, suggests that the allusiveness of living can’t be set aside for long.
At escaping the role in which they find themselves confined, the famous fare no better than the common in The Opposite of People. In two of the collection’s more ruminative poems, “Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote Dance” and “Time Is a Car with Its Brake Lines Cut,” Frank focuses on the confines of fame and the aftermath of former glory. Perhaps the collection’s most touching moment comes at the end of “Marilyn Monroe and Truman Capote Dance,” a poem inspired by a Garry Winogrand photograph taken of the painfully awkward “couple” in 1955 at New York’s El Morocco nightclub. The ambiguity as to whether it’s Capote or Monroe delivering this dramatic monologue nicely emphasizes the kinship of two people eager to control their own narrative. The entire poem takes the form of a proposal. After being pressed together by onlookers who would cruelly reduce them to “the bombshell and the queer,” one asks the other to collaborate in a little revisionist history as a way of wresting control back for themselves:
[. . . ] So let them laugh
and then forget it all: those drinks and pills,
hands wet, that man who, grinning, made us dance
so here we are, we’re dancing. Let’s just pretend
that one of us—who would remember who?—
slipped through the grand and glittered dark and said,
Hello, fella. Hello and take my hand.
The poem’s longish lines, with their enjambments and caesuras, read like a formal enactment of the couple’s dance. And the act of rescue, when it arrives at poem’s end, is the unexpectedly graceful flourish.
In “Time Is a Car with Its Brake Lines Cut,” the collection’s final and most overtly autobiographical poem, Frank uses details from the offscreen lives of two Hollywood legends as a springboard for his own elegy to former glory. Eight pages in length, the poem serves as an extended coda for the collection and examines the reasons why we sit, endlessly enthralled, viewing wonder from our seat in the commonplace. After beginning as a consideration of the 1936 film Desire, which the speaker regards as costars Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper’s sweetest confection and the apex of their self-possession, the poem turns into a meditation on the piecemeal loss of such self-possession due to uncontrollable events and the indignities of aging. In one extended passage of the poem, Frank relates the story of an aging Dietrich going to extreme measures to recapture her signature look before a performance at a London nightclub. He describes her in her dressing room giving herself a facelift with a needle and thread and wonders about his choice to focus on this grim sight:
It’s awful, the awful detail and what I’ve done—
plucked it out and lingered over it,
as if one moment could reveal some grief
at the center of a long, odd life. I know
that just because it’s terrible doesn’t mean
it means a thing. But I’m writing it here
because I understand how it feels
to look into a mirror and see yourself
unlike yourself—[. . . ]
If the slippage of the mask in this final poem reveals something of Frank’s own motivations for turning to the screen, it also underscores just how subjective and enigmatic a person’s reasons for doing so can be. In their own way, each member of The Opposite of People’s dramatis personae are looking for some semblance of control as they continue to careen through life, some temporary stay. Frank’s poems, through their craft and imagination, illuminate this basic human desire for an idealized replayable present, and in doing so they give us the enduring pleasure of true art.