Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Stuntman by Brian Laidlaw
(Milkweed Editions, 2014)

reviewed by Josh Cook

Stuntmen are surrogates. They willingly put themselves in harm’s way, give a glossy sheen to danger, stage art in the name of preserving “the pretty.” Brian Laidlaw, the yarn-spinning musician and lyric poet, takes a scalpel to the heart of the stuntman in his first full-length collection. Does the stuntman elevate the art? Or is he an underpaid instrument? Where does real creation happen? In the poet or the poem? The song or the singer? The sense or the sound? The book begs these questions but also interrogates lost time, individual responsibility, communal apocalypse, the role of art, the absurdity of art business, and the precariousness of the body/shell of things. These strains manifest in mysterious missives, rants, fragments, and confessions.

The speakers in The Stuntman are restless souls full of folk wisdom. They yearn for home, casting about genuine modes of expression. “THE EARTH BROKE OPEN BECAUSE WE BROKE IT OPEN,” the speaker of “Telegram,” the book’s opening poem, says. Ingenuity comes at a cost, and humans, though agents of destruction, are also agents capable of manifold change. Even beauty is susceptible to violence, as in “Notes for a Song Called ‘All it Takes’” where “The day doesn’t just break, it outright shatters.”

The first section teaches the reader how to read the collection. Repeated images of home abound, and a remarkable associative logic rides on jaunty rhythms and wordplay. The speaker of “Upstate Mother’s Refrain” comprises a list, repeating “I know,” but then her voice is shot through with italicized commentary.  She says:

    I know the tart iron water is reaming the well-poles
    I know freshwater sharks
    I know haters & orphans
    I know patriot atheists

Where are we, exactly? Some distant land, perhaps. In section two, we get references to the Washburn A Flour Mill in Minneapolis, torn-down cities, Trotskyites, outer space, the Cold War, and cannibals. The collection’s eight “Terrarium Letters” and five “Telegrams” also throw the poems into dislocation. Is the sender from a far-off place? Or are we? Either way, they conjure a sense of lost home, alienation, and a vacant space between that which is and that which is desired. “Terrarium Letter #2,” a twangy ramble, strains toward the connectivity and complexity of objects:

    the record needle has dust, is an eyelet, a stinger, isn’t stingy, the coronets on the
    record are dumber than ever, the daughter falls in love with her own hands

The swerves in action and the clever line breaks jolt you into and out of frenetic narratives, the effect somewhere between be-bop and ballad. “Narcissus the Debutante” begins:

    newcomer grows in, killing familiarity
    the wealthy scramble to incorporate

    he attends their dinners
    like demons they need new bodies.

Laidlaw’s not giving anything away explicitly, though. We’re left to guess where we are located, and it often turns out to be a cold, mythic mystery landscape where “here were trappers,” where the “Voyeurs Cum Voyageurs” collectively assert, “we lowdown our hearts in the tundra / we lowdown the spades.”  “A List of Scenarios” unravels in non sequiturs, what could be a stoner’s brainstorm for song-titles, including, “a bird with a broken wing” and “the randomizer stalks the spreadsheet.” The inclusion of objects like “spreadsheets” destabilizes the landscape, something Laidlaw—the Stuntman—is adept at. Hold on to your reins, cowboys, Laidlaw seems to say, don’t get too comfortable. If you do, you might miss something ingenious, like this from “The Cartographer Cries into His Knapsack”:

             I want to hear my elegy for everywhere, over the radio in the off-road
    limousine, wrenching up to a place I have no business, a sing-along

                        to myself weeping with joy.

Laidlaw is aware of his tricks, thus a constant reckoning of the commercialization of art. “Terrarium Letter #5” begins, “So-and-so is the next So-and-so, I wonder if that’s enough or if I care at all […]” Here, Laidlaw succeeds at parsing the paradoxes that lie between making art and “making it.”

It helps to know that Laidlaw is working from, riffing off of, and deconstructing the myth of Narcissus and Echo, the central image, of course, being Narcissus peering down into his own image.  It’s also based on Bob Dylan’s relationship with Echo Helstrom, his high school girlfriend and “The Girl from the North Country.” Dylan’s cryptic references to Echo throughout his career—at different times referring to her as Hazel, Becky Thatcher, and the girl who looked like Brigitte Bardot—baffled critics, and no one really knows how important she is or was to Dylan. In many ways, Laidlaw’s “Stuntman” pivots with the same reluctant frenzy of Dylan’s amorphous career—that is, seamlessly, and not without blithe provocation. The book also comes with a companion album for download. The songs are easy, Sunday-afternoon tunes, and Laidlaw’s voice pours like rich molasses. He’s less confrontational in his songs, freer, more narrative. Perhaps this is the echo, the stuntman’s double, the safer, prettier side. He saves danger for his page, and we’re all the better for it.

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