Thursday, October 14, 2010

Meet Me at the Happy Bar by Steve Langan 
(2009 Blaze VOX [books])

Reviewed by Liz Kay

Steve Langan’s obsessions are many: the body, as both an object of beauty and a decaying form, reappears in poem after poem; death and its compatriot, time, wander the pages; language, visual art, and music leave their marks. Still these are not the subjects of the Meet Me at the Happy Bar, merely landmarks that remind us where we are within its landscape. From the opening poem “Landscape with Pony” through repeated meditations on exile and home, the primary obsession is space itself, both literal and psychic. Leading us on a quest for that perfect confluence of time and place, that “Happy Bar” where we’re all two drinks in and completely at ease, Langan invites us into a world where he tries out every space he can imagine:

Landscape with promises.
Landscape with malcontents.
Landscape with syringes in a shoebox.

Landscape we’ve lived here so long clawing
after privilege you told me you would bring me
back to the sea before I die.

Still, none of these places ever really fit, and so the search is on through the beautiful and the mundane, the absurd, and the achingly normal, the ordinary dullness and the absolute rebelliousness of both life and love. In Langan’s hands, these moments feel recognizable. Ours is an age both overstimulated and seemingly lacking significance, and so we recognize ourselves in the speaker who is “already tired of this century. / Mothers, children, their forgetful children. // I can’t keep them all straight.”

Langan’s is a speaker admittedly in exile, though whether this is literal or psychic, self-imposed or otherwise seems always in flux. Admiration is juxtaposed with contempt, affection with disgust. Still, in his quietest, most fragile moments, he longs for the mother tongue, asking:

Will you hold me a while?
Until morning.

And speak only in English,
please, in plain flat
stupid midwestern.

So I cannot forget you.

Interestingly, it is in these moments, with these people who have not been forgotten, that our speaker seems most at ease. He is intent on preserving the characters of his memory, even those of whom he says:

Pay him no attention. He was the neighborhood
bully. Undocumented, suffering lapses,
certainly he’s come a long way,
but he’s still dangerous…

and this remembering is a dangerous exercise, as our speaker freely admits “It takes nerve, gumption and moxie / to remember all we’ve been through / and document it for the next generation.” There is great intimacy in this act of remembrance, and yet it is an intimacy that is portioned out with controlled detachment, as in the poem “Meditation on the Cabin (and Beyond)”:

You flash into my mind, dear one,
and are exalted then extinguished.

Safely tucked away, returned to exile.

All these forms of courage the mind enacts.

A wish followed by a denunciation.

This is a book with a great deal at stake, and yet there is a certain humor, too—a sense that our speaker recognizes the absurdity of the exercise, and a playfulness of language and musicality that enlivens the poems, offsetting their darker tendencies as in the poem “Where Is the Cigar I Left Burning” in which the speaker ruminates over his misplacement of:

                         …the journal
with the article I was reading
about the misconstruction
of deconstruction? The TP,
your famous IUD, the brochure
from the cemetery where we
can buy our plots now

For all his misanthropic quirks, or more likely because of them, Langan’s is a speaker we ultimately trust, a speaker we believe when he urges “Will you call me? You can count on me. / I will not omit triumph or disaster.” This use of the second person “you” is important. In poem after poem, we are directly addressed, invited to enter, confided in, and we trust what he has to say because, with the unparalleled intimacy of the stranger on the next barstool, this speaker hasn’t bothered to lie to us. We get the sense that we are both too important, and not important enough, to lead him to varnish the truth. Thus, our speaker’s admission of isolation is precisely what allows us to feel so connected to him when he says to us (and it really is to us, it feels):

Let’s make a wish, too, and let’s not cry
at all, not one tear, even though the darkness
has arrived, you remember light, don’t you,
and being moved to rapture by the singers,
their birdlike pronouncements in the final movement—

Langan’s is a voice both disconnected and discontented—searching, fully aware of the irony—for that which might connect and content. Who else could speak for us so fluently “in plain flat stupid Midwestern”?

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