Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sensational Spectacular in Growler

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” – T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

Sometimes I hover in front of my bookshelf in search of a book that will tell me exactly what I need to hear. I never have any idea what that is exactly, but I know that as my fingers walk the spines of all these poetry books, one of them has something to say to me. Nate Pritts’s book, Sensational Spectacular, is one of those books.

In Pritts’s poems, I recognize my own ambition, love of friends, belief in our own awesomeness, and our almost-assured failure. For poems that strike such a personal chord, it’s telling of Pritt’s abilities that the majority of these poems avoid the first person entirely. In fact, Pritts has such a talent for sudden science-fiction, such quick turns of logic, that it’s hard to say for sure that these poems even take place in our world, what with their spaceships, robots, changing proportions, and occasional lack of gravity.

The book has three sections. The first, “Secret Origins,” and the last, “The Brave & the Bold,” are long sequences of poems all about ten lines long, give or take a line, concerning a speaker and his group of friends. The book begins “My friends & I, we’ve got it all / figured out.” The title poem tells you just about everything you need to know:

:Sensational Spectacular:

When my friends & I sit at the same table
we all get to thinking that our actions are the important ones,

the ones that define the times we live in & that, logically,
we are the most important people alive right now

& that our thoughts are more colorful & exotic & sweeping
than anyone else’s. Then a lightning bolt

strikes the table & cuts it jaggedly in two,
our resulting fear the most spectacular & sensational fear ever expressed.

Who hasn’t felt this way about their friends? Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that way about friends from high school, college, grad school, work, my book club, at the grocery store, at the movies...there are times—few and far between—good times, when the right song is playing, the light is catching just right, and we feel on the cusp of greatness. Most of those times only last a minute or two and then we return to something completely mediocre, but those moments of unlimited potential and belief in oneself and others are at the core of these poems.

Life isn’t all busting through walls and being incredible, though, for this cast of “we”. There are also times when Green fights with Red (the friends are all named by color), when feelings get hurt, and it all seems like it’s about to fall apart. “:Free for All:” ends:

Green secretly changes Red’s mailing address
so that Red will always walk back lonely from the mailbox.

My female friend thinks these are the end times,
that the starfish who loses a limb won’t grow it back,
but instead will devour the others
out of a misguided sense of symmetry.

These poems strike me as a treatise on the best and worst of the poetry community. At our best, we are a self-sufficient, ass-kicking, brilliant dynamo that cannot be stopped from filling the universe with the largeness of our beauty. At our worst, we can be a back-biting, self-promoting, juggernaut of jealousy, content to tear this whole thing down if it gets us our due attention.

Pritts’s poems embody this duality of community and the individual in much more nuanced terms while the absurdity of the speaker’s circumstance, as well as Pritts’s imaginative and unexpected imagery, keep us from ever truly believing or disbelieving the purported greatness or pettiness of this group of friends.

There is another section of the book, “Big Crisis,” most of which appeared as a chapbook from Forklift, Ink. In this section, the collective gives way to the individual, complete with fears and daily problems. “Any patch of land with a giant grenade buried in it / knows exactly how I feel, like I’m about to be / all up in the air,” begins “A Day in the Life.” These poems may be more introspective than those of the other two sections, but there remains Pritts’s twists of reality, as in “Requiem for the End of Time!”:

I was led onto the stage & told to sing

my last. I inhaled & what I inhaled

turned me into a robot, my limbs

clunky & hollow, my chest filled

with gears & pistons where

breathing & love used to be.

I have a glowing faith

that eventually I will leave all this in the past.

The poems in the “Big Crisis” section of the book are heartfelt and insecure, sometimes optimistic and sometimes desperate. All the machismo of the group is gone from these poems and replaced with frailty and a hope that the speaker won’t shatter.

As editor of H_NGM_N, Pritts knows all about the psychology of the poetry, but these poems are clearly more than just a profile of poetry’s insides—and just to be clear I’m not ascribing any of the above emotions to Pritts himself, in truth, it’s pretty obvious I put as much if not more of myself into my reading of these poems than Pritts did in writing them. These poems speak to the place of ambition in human life, the comfort and discomforts of being in a group, and the inspiring potential to change everything as long as we can face the futility of our attempts. Maybe Pritts ends it better himself:

My friends are scattered to the winds & my hair grows grey,
thins & falls, each strand a plea that calls out
so clear it is like the first bird sound in the quiet morning.

- Dan Brady

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sensational Spectacular in NewPages

By Cyan James

Nate Pritts lives in a sealed chamber. At least, I think he does, or wishes he did. Whether the voice in his poems is his own or an invented persona is unclear, but the question is soon overwhelmed by the noisy glass cubicle of his poetic consciousness – things don’t hesitate to boom, explode, and self-destruct. The place simply simmers with internal threat. After all, volcanoes are exploding here, dinosaurs are waiting, lighting strikes, the roller coaster won’t stop, the wind won’t stop, violent floods of emotion assail him, and the light is dangerously perfect. But you only know it because he tells you so. You can’t see it. You can’t break through those glass barriers – no one can. Not the woman Pritts longs after with potent intensity, and not the nameless friends he apparently lives amongst.

Pritts’s poems are landscapes of bottled chaos: this is the eternal now he creates in his poems, where he wakes every day to a treadmill of relentless turbulence while the world continues to wend its determined way beyond his barriers, where he is not seen or thought of.

This one-way mirror effect lends both perspective and claustrophobia to Pritts’s precise, immaculately rendered work. His psyche seems to reel with exhaustion and yet with certain joy – to outward appearances, he seems a man stripped by circumstances and left bereft of anything save his frayed, twitching nerve-ends – yet Pritts’s voice is that of elation as well, of ebullience in the expressive powers of description itself:

My friends & I got ourselves trapped in individual-sized
prisons. We could no longer perform our secret handshake,
kept distant from each other by the unique quality of the bars.
The prisons themselves seemed to grow smaller as night
came on & then, with a blink, they were gone. We were ecstatic until,
in daylight, we realized the bars had formed snug to our bodies,
that we’d wear them always & unnoticeably.

A beautiful description there, one, which starts with implied threat, travels through a moment of glory, then introduces something unsettling. In fact, Pritts seems to revel in introducing an unsettling tone throughout his manuscript. He wants to impress you, to stay tough but to get through somehow, to find a space where longing and frank need appear touching and honest instead of plainly weak and naked. He can startle you with his closeness while simultaneously revealing the vague threat of danger we shelter in all our relationships, as in “Without a Net”:

all the different aspects of myself that I used to hold dear
are trapped in clear bubbles; somewhere, each one
is getting smashed open & what comes out comes out
shivering & afraid. The sunlight turns orange.
For your love, I’d cross from one mountain to another,
walking slow on the long rope bridge to your heart
& I wouldn’t turn back even if I saw you
trying to undo the knots that hold me up.

His deliberate, delicate vulnerability also reveals the way his narrator explores the fragmentation of personality. To Pritts, the self is not complete. It has all sorts of ways of expressing its varying facets, and refuses to be tamped down to just one “personality.” Pritts will acknowledge this explicitly in some places, but in others, it’s left to readers to discern what’s going on. For example, Pritts mentions a variety of “friends,” identifying them only by the name of a color, creating characters who might actually be shades of a single personality, one that is terrifyingly coalescing into a lonely whole. This interpretation perhaps assumes too much, but whether Pritts is talking about friendships with others or fragmentation within himself, he’s a master at delineating the shadow lands of despair, as in “Runaway Room”:

What I hate is when my friends & I
are all having a serious conversation
about appropriately serious subjects
when—out of nowhere—the floor of the room
rips itself out of the building & hurtles
into orbit above the Earth,
creating too vast a distance for us to bridge.

The poems in Sensational Spectacular are full of despair that whispers in one’s ear even as it prepares to launch a surprise napalm attack. It’s this finely keyed emotional intensity, sometimes soft-pedaled and sometimes surreal, that drives the lush simplicity of Pritts’s language, and makes reading this collection such a delicious experience.

erica kaufman. censory impulse. Big Game Books.

The self is accumulated, constructed by the thoughts & actions of our life as it is lived, & Kaufman is able to present this quotidian reality as anything but thanks to the shockingly clear & unadorned language of the poems in her book Censory Impulse. Here, the reader confronts a speaker whose consciousness evolves in a traceable way, & in a process that is deeply human:

so let’s talk. about something.
deep and wonderful.

You can almost hear the rush of childish enthusiasm in the first sentence, that pure drive for communication, clarified with an equally naïve suggested topic (“something”). What drives this book far into your head where it can resonate with the weight & essence of its sheer accuracy is its piercing clarity. All we need to do is talk, just talk, & it will be “deep and wonderful.”

These kinds of insights abound in Censory Impulse, which makes the book more like a reminder than news from the frontline. I’m more comfortable here than I am in most books, because there is a way in which I become the speaker. Without an overwhelming “I,” or a syntax aiming more to dazzle than delight, Kaufman is able to create a kind of participatory poetry. The insights enacted here are mine, too, since they are laid out like math problems with all but the answers chalked in.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Joseph Bradshaw. The Way Birds Become. Weather Press.

One of the most focused and fully realized books I’ve read in a long time, Bradshaw’s The Way Birds Become is an aesthetic project that far surpasses the constraints it sets for itself. Each poem begins with or builds from a line captured from another writer’s poem & the effect of this cacophonous chirping is surprisingly unified; even with these poems “all broken, singing / different songs” the reader gets a sense of one epic movement. The pleasure here is tied generally to two effects: 1) that of seeing theory/constraint put into practice successfully & 2) that of following the workings of one mind on a single, & constantly blooming, topic.

In practice, each of these poems are full of mysterious aphorisms, hazy folk wisdom from the back of the brain that feels right:

If you look out a window from within a bird

you’ll be frightened by the idea

that it’s an eye […]


That’s mostly how these poems develop, direct statements with syntactic or grammatical clauses added that either clarify or change the underlying ideas. These poems are almost devoid of ego; though occasionally they seem to reference something particular – some moment recollected or some situational emotion – the stakes here are decidedly processual, in motion, each poem presented as “evidence / of a sounding.” Even without the development or intimacies of an easily locatable “I” speaker, the poems here are conversational, visionary without all the heady pronouncements & unapproachable exteriors.

Bradshaw ends the poem “E—Hitchcock, The Birds (1963)” with a kind of explanation / apologia for the collection as a whole:

[…] birds become roads after they’re

transformed into and from the weather they once forecasted.

The Way Birds Become exists in the balance of inspiration & impulse, & demonstrates that the surest way inside can be facilitated by forces from the outside.

Maryrose Larkin. inverse. nine muses books.

Built out of obsessive clarifications & a desperate compulsion to reference, to provide support for, inverse presents the reader with an almost completely effaced speaker whose main concern is the attempt to know & communicate. Rather than residing in the self & structuring that self around & through the perceptions of a central consciousness, the poem(s) takes as its subject the very logic of knowing. When we read the phrase “between theories waking life” we’re forced to understand that this work is asking us to integrate our capacities for “logic” & “reason” in the Romantic sense – our abilities to think & feel.

Throughout, the provisional nature of knowledge is what seems to be under the most scrutiny; if the speaker has to go to such great lengths to accurately articulate anything, then is knowledge itself flawed. Is knowing something helpful or even necessary?

The name of this intersection is frost broken up

heavy spar reign heavy phrase ravishment

strands careening

let us unfurl instead: weather

see also river

see also self and the less restricted sense

I’d have a hard time tracing what the speaker is getting at here, in the traditional sense, but if we give up on that, of ever knowing exactly what, then I think we’re closer to the point. Larkin’s project here seems to be the interrogation of knowledge, creating the sense that we can achieve a larger scale of perception both through intellect & outside of it. “Come,” the poem tells us:

[…] expound breath intelligible

come shine

come abound unfold in and about go

Dan Machlin. Dear Body:. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007

Through missives dotted with lackadaisical phrases as well as more abstract convictions, Dan Machlin has written a book where the overall integrity is nested in the form itself, an epistolary certainty that this “cluster bomb of a man” can deliver a sustained and unified self (“Letter 1”).

The epistolary form itself is an important element to the book; Machlin couches all of his lyric utterances in the context of being addressed. Beyond that, the mixing of distinct registers within these communiqués keeps the reader constantly alert. There is a linguistic fuzziness to some of the work—not that the referents are confused, but that it seems, at times, as if the consciousness of the poem is unsure of what it wants to say, is still finding its sense. Take these lines from “Letter in which it is Explained”:

We were always speaking so small it snowed
I thought or the occult of
having each of us in this place.

There is definitely a procession to the logic here, but it is frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t quite add up. These moments, though, of quiet yet dazzling mystery coupled with an oddly confident progression, are part of what helps the reader construct a unified sense of Machlin’s overall project.

Another key is in the constant questioning that serves as the ostensible base for many of the poems. “Letter 2” begins:

So far in this insignificance I can’t say how I left you. How I felt the last dance
of a pulse—a cloud and—as a cliché mid-sentence—proverbial stuttering.

Here we have the same type of diction already noted; the first sentence offers a kind of bombastic statement that ends in muted defeat and leaves us without any real intellectual grasp of its meaning. But the trajectory of this poem reveals something deeper, as we find on arriving at the last lines:

Lately I have been feeling estranged from you again. Doubtful
you ever existed.

Leaving aside the larger (and here completely unimportant) concern of whether “you” is a real person, the overall dynamic of loss and uncertainty helps further define Machlin’s purpose.

Dear Body: is a rich book. There is real pleasure in reading the poems (see the inclusive virtuosity of “Fifth Letter” and the counter-intuitive beauty of “Waste Stream”), but there is also the greater challenge inherent in ascertaining whether we are more than the sum of the parts we can easily name and tabulate. As Machlin writes in “Fifth Letter”, “No we were not just pleasant beings gazing into the sun.” This book is offered as evidence to our complexity.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sensational Spectacular in Bookslut

By: Olivia Cronk

I admit that I -- as, I suspect, many readers -- tend toward odd connections based on coincidence, i.e. a song is stuck in my head, and I figure out how it connects to the novel I am reading… or I catch a write-up about the possibility of a multiverse and I come to think of that lofty physics concept as my own malleable metaphor, easily and carelessly applied to John Donne or Franza Kafka. Or whatever. It’s a lazy habit, but I chalk it up to serving the larger goals of thought and expression.

This brings me to Nate Pritts and the newly-released-on-DVD film, The King of Kong. There is something about the effect of combining the two. The film is a surprisingly warm and endearing documentary (ostensibly about the battle to be title-holder for most points -- in the game of Donkey Kong -- in the realm of competitive arcade gaming, but actually about a wonderful, extraordinary ordinary-man and his extraordinary ordinary-life). And here’s Pritts: “Living my life in the distant pink/ buildings of Backgroundsville, I long/ for the full-color foreground.”

On one hand, the connection is surface-y: Pritts uses the language, tone, and awkward silliness of a 1950s sci-fi-comicbook-pow-bang-robot-techical-failure world. And, given what I saw of Donkey Kong and its arcade peers, that’s exactly the sort of aesthetic that emerged in 1980s videogame stylings. On the other hand, the film really suggests a microcosm (within this tiny world of arcade competition exists the most delightful weirdoes and personal dramas) to create a portrait of one man. And that portrait, as an act of film, is, for lack of a more interesting word, touching… And back to Pritts: Sensational Spectacular is a nicely organized collection (three parts, loose narrative arc, pleasurable images) that does two things (amongst many other poetic tasks) very, very well: 1) by recontextualizing the aforementioned notions and nodding ambivalently to the physical reality most Americans now live in, Pritts is able to banish the quotidian -- and in doing so, to make brand new the struggle of one man against the infringing coldness of modern life, and 2) Pritts manages to make this book as much about poetics and the subculture that writers share as it is about existential meaning and individual expression. So, to summarize so far: where The King of Kong uses the strange “landscape” of competitive arcade gaming to reveal an exceptionally interesting man (you’ll see when you watch the movie), Pritts uses his own writing prompt (a Kenneth Koch quote and the skeleton of a bizarre outer space B-movie set) as a way of revealing genuine emotion. And, in many ways, Pritts’s speaker is an everyman, heart wrenchingly casting his powerless fist up into the air as the flying machines and automated check-out lines further crush his soul.

When I say that Pritts banishes the quotidian, I mean: through the lens of his poetics, ordinary life is stranger and funnier than it is with clear vision. Because of this, the reader just sort of falls into someone’s narrative. It all seems reasonable enough, even as Pritts drags you right into death-ray beams and green monsters and tentacles dropping from the sky to squeeze you. There is a bit of the 1980s child here: the overly intellectualized, ironic, gallows humor-ish dread that my generation uses for banter. And it works excellently. The poems are often packed on a page, almost like an e-mail printout you save for sentimental reasons. Here’s the opening page:

:World of No Return!:

My friends & I, we’ve got it all
figured out. We play a game

where we sit facing each other, stone-
faced, unblinking &, after one wrong move,

we watch a staticy purple light engulf
that poor one who won’t come back no more.

:Those Ghost Hands Reaching:

Each of us has a job: pull, push, ram

headlong. Not one of us alone could hope to keep
the shiny gold door closed by their lonesome self!
Way up above anyone’s head we see it

swinging open, those two chalk-colored hands
reaching through. It’s easy to assume hostile intent.
What good has ever come from ghost hands

reaching through a floating gold door?

None, I think, Mr. Pritts. You are right to be scared. As Sensational Spectacular’s narrative unfolds, our funny protagonist and his “friends” deal with all of the things that people deal with (romance vs. love, jobs, feelings of alienation tempered by warm friendships, negotiations with the self in everyday life, imagined and real enemies) and then they slowly come undone. The protagonist makes no qualms about being terrorized by life, about feeling anxious and strange. In one particularly successful moment, he feels a burdensome disconnect between himself and his clothes (his uniform out in the real world); I can’t think of a friend of mine who hasn’t had to give him/herself a good talking-to in order to figure out how to maintain integrity in the space of a job and young-adult existence.

Pritts opens the book with a Kenneth Koch quote about failing to properly place his friends in his poems. Pritts’s use of “friends” is sometimes, I think, for mere story-telling, and other times, for the purpose of revealing that his intellectual peers are the people who provide models for his life. We rely on our friends to illustrate our own ideas for us, and we become versions of their ideas. It seems appropriate, also, to consider the pragmatic: as we age, our relationships with our “friends” must change. The perpetual hanging-out of twenty- and thirty-somethings does not meaning make. The self must break away. Eventually. Somehow.

As with the protagonist of The King of Kong, I find Pritts’s speaker so loveable, so very much experiencing the struggles of this place in time… that the little robotic heart in me just aches: “Lost in the woods, there are two ways to save myself/: breathe the green of the trees & become more rooted/ or scream my name & try to punch myself out./ Either way, I’m left alone/ realizing that I wasn’t what I wanted.” There are a handful of longer, meatier poems that build and build and build to lovely effect. From “In the Hot Seat”:

You end up somewhere better than you started, a buzzing hope
that the bees who make your honey will finish what they’ve begun,
that love plus love can build a lasting machine, a souped-up contraption
to get its occupants safely out of their own heads
and into some gleaming hope mobile, some holy holy structure.
When you begin to ascend those divine stairs, your head
clears, you learn to become a better pilot of the contraption you’ve got.

Pritts’s story does not end happily. The protagonist is, indeed, left alone to face the passing of time and the sheer sadness of being human.

So go rent The King of Kong as a complement to Pritts’s book. And make a pie, or watch a really cheesy sunset, or eat some nachos.

Sensational Spectacular by Nate Pritts
BlazeVox Books
ISBN: 193428906X
69 pages

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