Monday, April 16, 2012

The Sliding Glass Door by Scott Poole 
(Colonus Publishing, 2011) 

reviewed by Rob Carney 

“What influences my writing more than anything
are my old Steve Martin albums. The timing of his
delivery is pure genius. He holds the audience on
every word. That’s what a true poet does.”
—Scott Poole

Like Scott Poole, I’m a fan of Steve Martin. I’m on my third copy of Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Other Plays. I’ve seen the title play performed twice. What first got me hooked, though, were the comedy albums. My friend and I used to play them over and over in his living room back when they were brand new and we were just kids. Hilarious. But unparaphraseable.

Poole’s poems are similar. They arrive at what functions as a punch line, but he isn’t telling jokes, and often the punch lines are aiming at something bigger than a laugh. “What Happens Every Year When My Mom Asks Me What I Want for Christmas” and “Visit from a Bullfighter” demonstrate this well. The titles cue us to expect narrative and drama, but in inverse ways: The first suggests we’ll be presented with the extraordinary in the ordinary; the second suggests the opposite; and in each, that’s exactly what happens. And both end with punch lines: “How about a shirt?” she replies. “Shirts are nice,” and “I don’t know what he’s crying about. This ice cream is good.” But without the stories—Poole’s avalanching or balky trial-and-error ways of getting there—the punch lines aren’t able to skeet-shoot us out of the air. And those stories, those gettingtheres, can’t be paraphrased. You really need to have them whole.

Still, here’s a synopsis of the Christmas poem, followed by excerpts from the one about a matador so baffled by the banality of our suburban way of living that it’s like he’s being existentially gored: In answer to his mom’s question about what to get him for Christmas, a grown man, played by Scott Poole in his exuberant imagination, progresses from “just want[ing] everyone to be happy” to needing fencing lessons, a vast tank of helium, 2,523 banjos, and a secret lair, not necessarily in that order. As you read it, it makes perfect sense. And “Visit from a Bullfighter” begins in medias res with no explanation about what prompted this visitation in the first place:

         I show him the croquet set.
         It’s broken. Nobody has played in years.
         Next, we turn on the television to find a show

         but he stabs his sword straight through it. 

         I take him to the Olive Garden for lunch. 
         “This is ridiculous,” he says, crossing his arms. 

         I love the library. I take him to the library.
         […] I raise my hands

         to the bookshelves in a grand gesture of possibility.
         He throws his head back and tromps out with great pomp.
         Outside, I find him smoking by the fountain. 

         “Where are the bulls?” he shouts to no one in particular.

         “Where is death and beauty?” he screams.
         “Back off freak!” says a scampering woman.

The poem doesn’t exactly add up to Rilke’s “You must change your life,” but it’s in that neighborhood. And it’s subversive right up to the final line, where it undercuts the absurdist game it’s been playing, and does so with an ordinary ice-cream cone.

It’s poems like this one that keep me coming back. From his first book The Cheap Seats (Lost Horse Press 1999), to Hiding from Salesmen (Lost Horse 2003), to this new collection The Sliding Glass Door, that’s always been the case. I’m hooked by the joyful, goofy, improbable, fantastic humor he rides in on like a unicycling armadillo juggler. But I stay for the more serious, sometimes even melancholy, remainder of the show. This book, like the previous two, has plenty of that.

“Small Resistance” is an elegy that gives me, still, that experience of nerve shivers even though I know what’s coming in the final stanza. It’s understated and moving. Likewise, “My House” is a critique of the Bush administration disguised, à la Frank O’Hara, as a present-tense rendering of daily this-andthats. Like O’Hara, Poole weaves counterpoints so that the result is much more than a journal entry about cleaning the house and taking care of the kids:

         It’s the weekend. A Saturday.
         There are three children sleeping
         in the rooms of my house.
         My son. My daughter. My nephew. My house.
         I’m in charge. Me.
         It’s 9:16 p.m. in the dark days of October.
         Rain pounds the house, and the porch light,
         as I peer out, fills with breath.
         Yesterday, one of the top five
         people in the White House was
         indicted for perjury. A man named Scooter.
         I have almost constant rib pain now,
         but I’m not being indicted for perjury.
         No great scandal is rocking my house.

And like O’Hara—I’m thinking of classics in Lunch Poems like “A Step Away from Them” and “The Day Lady Died”—Poole ends this twelve lines later with a redirect, a swerve away, that’s somehow exactly on target, “The president can kiss my ass. / Everyone can come live with me.”

Finally, there’s “Keeping the Promise,” another strong example of a high-stakes subject approached with both humor and seriousness. This poem about devoted fatherhood moves seamlessly toward its own self-help-support-group antithesis, and it’s the word “cardboard,” of all things, that allows him to conclude with an impressive shape-shifter move:

         […] In fact, if I didn’t have kids
         that would even be better. Cardboard kids
         I could always commit to and still get to my

         committing meetings and not have to worry
         about giving them constant commitment. That’s it!
         I’m going to have sex with a cardboard box.

         I’ll put my entire self in a cardboard box,
         commit in my mind as hard as I can,
         and someday they’ll mail me to my children.

If you know his work already, you’ll be glad to have this new book. Maybe “Shelving” will be your favorite, or “How Our Living Room Became a Cemetery.” They’re a couple of brilliantly oddball fables, and I’m a fan of both. For those of you who’ve never heard of Scott Poole, you should treat yourself—you’re worth it. Get this book, then back up and read Hiding from Salesmen and The Cheap Seats too. I’ll bet 2,523 banjos you’ll be happy that you did.

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