The shadow cast by Joe Brainard’s I Remember is disproportionately long and monolithic for such a meticulously intimate and ramshackle book. More troubling, much of Brainard’s legacy in contemporary poetry is seen in a certain kind of overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white lyric, in which a glib faculty with pop culture is translated into a network of weird epistemological tokens—here’s my self-sufficient system of referents, here’s my mastery. Of course, some of the most prominent names in poetry right now are, in part, exploring more thoughtful, New Narrative-inflected takes on Brainard’s basic schtick—Dana Ward comes to mind—but I still often come across poems which seem to make memory too easy, as if looking backwards is as simple as building a memory palace out of all the shit you owned as a little kid. The last thing Brainard was interested in was commodifying the fragile and tenuous position of the subject, but, it turns out, that’s a very easy mistake to make.
Mark Lamoureux, in 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years, is up to something a little different. Despite the potential preciousness of his conceit—part one covers a sequence of specific autobiographical cheeseburgers from childhood to the present, while part two moves from Lamoureux’s birth in 1972 up to 2011—the book embraces a messiness and excess that emphasizes how desperate an attempt to shore up a material phenomenology of memory rather than offering a sack full of childhood ephemera as a totalizing, all-encompassing museum of epiphanies. It’s funny and sad, but neither funny nor sad in the ways that the premise and the bold, two-tone creamsicle colored cover led me to expect. I guess it’s understandable—when I think of the best work being done in this the vein of a sort of, I guess, “phenomenology of recall” right now, I immediately think of younger poets like Brandon Brown, Patricia Lockwood, or Kiki Petrosino; writers who are, in different ways, engaging with a conversational and vernacular voice that lends much of their most compelling and provocative work a kind of casual prosiness and a cool-teen adolescent verve. To remember to out (as the poem of remembrance always does) is to divulge, and to divulge is to engage in a kind of erotics of communication, strip-tease a la Blanchot. Lamoureux writes older and examines younger. There isn’t the effortless assumption of discursive connection, of disclosure as a fluent matrix of social activity that maybe leads a certain generation of poets to feel such a strong affinity with the extremely gossip-oriented, chatty tactics of New Narrative. Instead, Lamoureux’s 80’s-teenager rolls his 20-sided dice through a less rhetorically electrified environment than those poets did, and his 2013-poet writes a lonelier, sparser kind of poem. Less like conversation, more like invocation, twined around a progression of genres. From “1984:”
Learn to burst again,
get out your glaive,
your cat is dead, too. Into the basement
full force, naked ladies
in the dungeon. Fear grows
an unwanted brother, no Master
of the Universe. Wolf
of the air, wolfing macaroni,
demons’ tails curling
sofa legs. A golem made
of mottled grey marble
wanders a swamp, looking
for the inky Will O’ the Wisp
from the dictionary. Balls
of swamp gas, of course, course
at last set for a great stone
mouth. Fat kid learns to
fall, the future
right in the face.
Remembering in this book seems like an act instead of a reflex, suggesting the Renaissance fixation on mnemonics or, in the Cheeseburger section—sorry—a sustained labor of concentration a la some exhausted, bleu-cheese and bacon-loving Proust. His poetics are lonely, having less in common with discursive, Bruce Boone-esque techniques and more with the quiet fabulism of somebody like Ben Lerner. Even when his set of references—for the linear progression of years in this book always feels less like a narrative than an evolving set of relevant points in an archive—he remains eloquently mopey (“Smoke in the club,/ the lonely misanthrope/ sways alone.”)
However, one of the peculiar joys of this book, the thing that most often made me put it down to laugh for a minute, is the way that his mutable archive bleeds through the formal divisions of years, how the pathos of adolescence shows up again in adulthood as goofy bathos. Marvel Comics’ angsty 80’s superhero duo Cloak & Dagger emerge into a late 90’s club scene, the agonizingly specific vocabulary of Dungeons & Dragons persists throughout the whole book (“like bucklers/ like derision’s dastardly/ gladius;”), and Lamoureux’s most explicit citation of Proust swerves into his most explicit citation of that other mythic icon of memory, Professor X:
Illiers-Combray is a surly
madeleine, rows of Canadians
on the hotel wireless in Chartres,
the Beast & Iceman
listen to Bernard the Poet
in Greenwich Village.
The book’s melancholy, as well as its humor, stems largely from its engagement with the specific weirdness of combing through one’s childhood bedroom, looking through old notebooks, comic books, pulp sci-fi novels, how the objects which used to signify freshness and potential age into weird, sad mementos. Lamoureux then is digging right into the most obnoxious pitfalls of this kind of writing—nostalgia and sentimentality and reactionary fetishism of the past—and wrenches something sly and brutal from them. In part this is due to Lamoureux’s refusal to demur from the selfish, even narcissistic pleasures of this kind of recollection, his unwillingness to let himself off the hook. From a poem staged in the middle of a visit to his childhood home, he writes:
“so no way into town in the snow;
I jerk off,
read old notebooks,
watch the women & the soldiers on the television.”
And two pages later:
When all’s said & done,
I like to sleep alone
beside the letterpress.
That is, the loneliness of recollection is insisted upon here as a voluntary loneliness, a narcotic slipping into the always-already mediated mental archives. Is this the secret desire at the bottom of memoir? Text without the need for an audience, without much interest at all in providing apertures for the reader to approach through?
My favorite poem (and, I think, the funniest) in 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years is “1982,” which approaches most directly the “mysterious spaces of childhood” mentioned in Chris McCreary’s blurb. Running down the center of its two pages is a litany of imagined super-heroes, “Elementress M.A.R.G./ (uncolored) Magellan/ The magnificent Moonbeam Comet/ The super Supernova”” while the bottom of each page is filled with foot-noted battle-cries, catch-phrases, and action-figure package rhetoric: “Double-diamond are my specialty,” “Let’s see how the popsicle down there can handle my head discs!’ or “I DO NOT RECOGNIZE THAT SUBSTANCE.”
None of these names and tags are “funny” in a way that’s knowing, sly, ironic—they’re not funny in a way that asserts Lamoureux’s mastery over the index of his childhood. They’re funny precisely for occupying that register within which a kid fills up the space of a page because white space is horrifying, within which a registry of fantastic names is the only thinkable creative act, because narrative is breaking apart cool stuff that you like. In other words, the cryptic, impenetrable sweetness of Lamoureux’s tone is at its most concentrated in this poem. Its buoyant parataxis is the method of someone whose joy is re-arranging a favored collection, in exhausting the limits of combination. It’s a solipsism—kind of—but one which tends towards the infinite.
“I remember,” then, isn’t quite the same kind of socially constituted speech act it becomes for Brainard. Rather, it’s a private urging into action, born out of, perhaps, a Berrigan-esque compulsion to deal with the space of the page. One of Lamoureux’s previous collections, UDP’s CITY/TEMPLE is a poem sequence about someone on a quest, through places the reader is denied access to, for reasons the reader is denied access to. The pleasure is following at a distance, marking the foot-prints, trying to wring communication out of arbitrary signs. 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years, in a way, is also a quest poem, through an architecture of memory owing less to the open-source New Narrative model and more to the hermetic thought-spaces of Renaissance mnemonics. Lamoureux leads us through sometimes unyielding, sometimes frighteningly intimate, sometimes alien landscapes of familiar signifiers for unfamiliar purposes. In a poetic mode often predicated on articulating its compact with the readee, its rhetoric of generous recipricocity, Lamoureux comes off as startlingly, perhaps refreshingly, willing to leave his audience behind. To read 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years is, in a sense, an experience in lagging behind, in running out of breath as the poet surges mysteriously through his history. There are many reasons, in this cryptic, hushed, rewarding book, to try to keep up.
29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years
Christopher Schaeffer lives in Philadelphia. He holds an MFA from Temple University, where he is also pursuing a PhD in poetry and poetics.