Daniel Tiffany’s poetic craft has proven to be a mutable but perennial extension of his theoretical practice. His poetry’s progress and its protean movement derive from its constant state of advent, always just becoming as it slingshots into view around a corner, maneuvering and reshaping itself to better keep apace of the evolving and expanding ideational apparatus drawing it along an surprisingly revealing trajectory of exposés. In this regard, Tiffany occupies an unquestionably unique position among contemporary poets. The reciprocity between the poles of his output proves that he has the pluck to set all his convictions in motion and let them play out as they may. Infidel Poetics, his last critical book, delves into the strange substance, trafficked between cadres of vagabonds, thieves, and peddlers, that underlies the lyric tradition. The ensuing books of poetry, Privado and The Dandelion Clock both draw heavy breaths of afflatus up from the vents over poetry’s substrata. The former offers poems that assimilate large swathes of military marching songs, some babble, some outright ribaldry. And in the latter, Tiffany interlaces fragmented Middle English lyrics, ones only surviving through treatises condemning them, with lines of his own to produce what he terms pocket rhapsodies. In his forthcoming critical book, My Silver Planet, he takes a close look at the troubled relationship between elite poetry and its cast off husk to which it assigns the pejorative label of kitsch.
The inference, then, to be made is that Neptune Park is the testing ground whereon Tiffany sets out to explore the tangible possibilities of his researches. Kitsch has a nobler lineage than many critics and poets would admit. Tiffany has remarked in a recent lecture that history tells of its rather secret origins in the ballad revival of the eighteenth century, when, for example, the lyrical language of lullabies, with their synthetic, timeless speech, alienated from any true sense of the nonce, offers all the allures of fetish to those who would covet the claim of having rediscovered, reappropriated, and even forged “forgotten” traditions. Kitsch, as most know it, is also complicatedly tied up with excess and display, even pornography.
Appropriately, in Neptune Park an array of elements that have come to be affectionately or reproachfully referred to as kitsch are present: fur and Astroturf; child stars and fairies. Lil Wayne? Yes, he’s here too, in a gem with the glistening title “Lil Wayne Appears on a Swing.” But what’s striking is how the context of each and every one of these elements mars them. Bits and pieces of gutter dross crowd the gimcrack vistas of a pensioner’s mantelpiece. Or better yet, the mantelpiece clings to a wall of dry rot in a squatter’s hovel and broken baubles and pop ephemera comprise its sad, decorative retinue. This is precisely how Tiffany’s body of work expands: like one lengthening chain of meaning in an agglutinative language. Eccentric scholarship lays the groundwork for creative experimentation. And Neptune Park may put it all together better than any of its precursors, poetic or critical. Unpredictable images pit art proper and tchotchkes together in a vernacular patchwork of slang, puns, nonsense rhymes, and balladic lilts that shouldn’t, due decorum would advise, unfold into poetry but nonetheless do and, Tiffany would add as a reminder, nonetheless always have.
“Fronting,” one of the first poems in the book serves as a prime example, short enough to quote in its entirety.
Mostly the creeps turn their heads
so as not to see us.
A repeated phrase glitters on the threshold.
My boyfriends drink out of a dark
green puddle. What is Man
that thou should magnify him?
Then, too, then, too, then, too,
the Bardot girls listen for strangers
back home. Lucky that
grimy curtain doesn’t do much
to hide the bed.
now your poppy-
bower syndrome, not all there
to feel the pranks my boyfriends
have in store for me.
Unpacking the title of the poem reveals its tongue-in-cheek insidiousness. On the one hand, fronting can mean acting in such a way as to demonstratively exceed the limits of one’s characteristic role – too boldly getting beyond oneself. In this case, fronting as a single word becomes a micro meta-commentary on the poem itself, with its intentionally awkward mock comedy and its attempts at self-destruction that never quite come off and make it bad. The inquisitive line lifted from Job bespeaks a melodrama of theodicy that roughly coincides with what fronting can mean on the other hand, namely acquiring narcotics temporarily gratis, with a promise of deferred payment. The burned-out or burning but, somehow, not dire situation that the poem’s speaker lives necessitates no vast associative leap to land at Job’s difficult existential questions of lowly selfhood beleaguered by temptation.
As dangerously overdone as Biblical quotation is in poetry, the risk involved in the gesture doesn’t seem to obtain in this case. Nor does Tiffany hazard the quainter dangers of preciousness when, into a poem entitled “Touching Topics,” he interpolates the following riddle, written in the dipody common to nursery rhymes:
As round as an apple
as deep as a pail
it never cries out
till it’s caught by the tail.
The answer? A bell. The poem itself plays out as an oneiric reflection on waking and answering to the loud turmoil of a restless mind at a time too early to be morning and too late to continue sleeping. Note the turn toward sarcasm the title takes now. And the address to those who rise with the matins toll of the coming day’s clutter is distanced and wry. “You look like somebody / just turned you loose,” Tiffany writes. He himself takes a kind of solace in what could be toxic nervous tension, not “felling an oak / to set up a strawberry” and thereby dispelling the protective powers oak is fabled to have in poet lore just to sow a crop of palliative sweetness. Instead he proclaims,
I chose the walnut.
Whose fruiting body,
like a ball of twine
or the untidy turban,
is known to me.
The walnut too has fabled powers, but of the intellect, of plots and stratagems especially pernicious to oak trees. Its connotations, aligned against the oak, suggest a comfort in discomfort not unlike the negative capability that Keats – a figure Tiffany invokes earlier in the poem, “drafting children’s midnight junkets” – defines as “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
This is the effort the book asks of its readers, to tarry in a paradigm of aesthetic failure, to tolerate compromises in coherence. The gaudy spectacle of antitheses, and all its attendant transgressive pleasures, is the reward offered in return. It’s well worth it, especially when it’s doled out over the transition from drunkenly funny lines like “You could say she bottle-fed me / Jameson like I was a baby chimp” to others that await under a more sober, antique patina, such as “His angels be charged with folly – / it cracks between their teeth.” That penultimate line, it’s Job again. And that makes sense. If surfeit, collapse and reintegration all somehow inhere in the idea of kitsch, then the heavy-handedness of the reference to a story notorious for its edifying overkill, a story wherein everything set and steady disintegrates, proves an unexpectedly fluid correlative to a book that plants its readers on a literary rubble heap to wonder “what the hell is going on?” and maybe even, histrionically, “how did it come to this?” only to emerge, yet more unexpectedly, all the wiser and richer for it.
Buy it from SPD: $18
Derek Gromadzki is an MFA candidate in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, where he holds the Peter Kaplan Memorial Fellowship.