In a 2005 essay entitled, “Serious Art That’s Funny: Humor in Poetry,” poet Matthew Rohrer quotes the Revered Literary Critic, who uses the term, “comedians of the spirit” to throw shade on poets who dare to openly use humor in their work. Rohrer pushes back on the so-called canon to say when poets who would naturally be inclined toward humor refuse to “incorporate whole parts of their living personalities into their artistic work,” art suffers. It’s a good thing for art lovers and readers of contemporary poetry that Hannah Ensor, in her new book, Love Dream with Television, refuses nothing. These poems are candid, provocative, vulnerable, smart as hell, ingeniously crafted, and often hilarious.
The poem is not the poet, sure, but to pick up Love Dream with Television is to experience something like relief, as well as delight, to read poems that adeptly and generously invite the reader into the busy, screen-lit corners of Ensor’s art and mind. If, upon finishing the last poem, we don’t know the poet, we recognize the voice of one who is simultaneously pulling from and editing our unbearably stimulating American experience to discern the tantric hum she cautiously suspects, at least won’t deny, might exist under the noise.
I like to notice things, and this too keeps me from relaxing
There comes a point / when you see that none of it is bullshit after all // The universe is a breath / & every breath is a universe. Oh, I’ve done it again: / took too big a breath, bigger than “natural.”
From Ensor’s egalitarian perspective, refreshing as a splash of Canadian vinegar, reruns of Friends are no more or less suitable for cultural and intellectual consideration than a Basquiat exhibit, a basketball game, and a 300-level seminar that posits, Is Nature White?
Rohrer offers up the New York School’s Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch as two examples of poets who braved the comic line. For me, Ensor’s poems recalled the rhythmic joy and easy intimacy of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, and the references to fine art echoed the cross-media influences of that energetic and masculine group. But isn’t it time we let satire off the leash of the New York School and recognize the wit and wisdom in more current work by the likes of Nicole Sealey, Solmaz Sharif, Jill McDonough, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Hannah Ensor?
In an interview from 1999, the poet Heather McHugh says, “Well, that’s the trick: the sudden unexpectedness inside the overknown.” She’s discussing the “trick” of poetry, but it may well be applied to the superb craft Ensor devotes to repositioning the banal, peeling off the canvas top layer of the everyday to reveal a divine comedy of experience.
Last year, Netflix ran Nanette, a stand-up show by Hannah Gadsby in which the comedian set out to “deconstruct the nature of comedy and ask the ‘straight white male’ to undergo the same tension that marginalized people go through every day.” In the poem “Everyone Wants an Immersive Experience: Nature poem at a screening of Jurassic Park,” Ensor arguably, with a quotidian surreality that conjures Charles Simic or your favorite humanities instructor, deconstructs the nature of poetry with a seriocomic parsing out of Jurassic Park, implicating herself in the tensions and anxieties of the day:
Nature is destructive, as we are
In nature, If there’s anything to notice about straight men
In nature, in this movie, it’s that they love
But are not good at women. As in nature.
I find it alarming when all the doors unlock and then
Lock again. I find it alarming when, suddenly, a goat.
Now that’s what I call art.
Ensor keeps her experience central to the poems, whether she’s meditating, rising through the academic ranks like she’s swilled a bottle of Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drink, or sitting in her car in a Planet Fitness parking lot. In these close quarters the reader can experience Ensor’s very sincere attempts to make sense of a cacophonous world and her place within it. Art is a fickle running buddy, legacy jumps out unexpectedly, and love is too serious not to joke about.
From “Wallace Stevens’s ‘Poems of Our Climate’: A Cover”:
Nothing is ever perfect
& we get off on that.
It’s erotic: how bad
I am at loving.
And, “A Problem And Some Space”:
During sex / a girlfriend always wants to talk to me. Just the other night she
called me from a hotel.
Cue the rimshot. But before the punchline, we have this:
Between what a girlfriend says and what I think: some space.
We have a problem
And some space. How wrong I can be: I am a wide-open peach
Jar when a girlfriend phones me.
While Gadsby declared in Nanette that she couldn’t work in comedy anymore because its self-deprecation implicated her in her own abuse, Ensor writes poems that invite us into her vulnerability. There is tender sincerity, anxiety, and desire under the quip. We get the joke, and we’re right there with her holding the phone.
The beauty of this book is in how it collapses the hierarchies of critical thinking and upends notions of what constitutes art. Ensor road trips us through Arizona, Michigan, Canada, and Iceland. We pop in to rethink Rachel and Ross, and touch back to Anne Carson to recalibrate. In an interview with Ensor from the University of Arizona Poetry Center, she quotes Carson’s introduction to Short Talks, which reads like a personal manifesto: “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.”
From Ensor’s “Other People”:
I wonder if one can know so much about art
that it is impossible to make it anymore
Like something breaks, and it is all scattered on the floor
That is too cogent a simile for what I imagine it feeling like
I have long been curious about how Anne Carson feels about
And I am, too, and am now wondering if I can surmise an answer from reading Carson’s work, from reading how Ensor understands her work. I am in the conversation, and isn’t that the point of poetry?
Hannah Ensor is the associate editor of the anthology, Bodies Built for Game: The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Contemporary Sports Writing, featuring “poems, essays, and stories that challenge our traditional ideas of sport and question the power structures that athletics enforce” and edited by the poet Natalie Diaz. Sports, particularly basketball, and the way the body moves in the world contribute significantly to the questions of identity and purpose in Love Dream with Television. As Diaz writes in her essay, “A Body of Athletics,” “I’ve existed in a separate space of gender, not masculine or feminine, not even queer.”
In Ensor’s “Sister Scorer Rivulet,” the poet wants to know, after listening to a comment by a WNBA sports commentator:
What does it mean
to be sister
To sister sport here with 2:49 to go //
I think you must sister the vulva
“Nature Poem While Watching Jurassic Park” asks, “What is a question that is good, / and what makes that question good?”
I closed the jacket on Love Dream with Television with more and better questions than when I opened it.
As Anne Carson says, “Not a complaint.”