Reading Dear Failures, Trey Sager’s chapbook of poems addressed to his failed writing projects, brought to mind a fragment from Eileen Myles’ Inferno. Myles claims: “In a way, poetry really does require failure, because failure produces space. That nobody else wants. Poets as a group hate success.” Dear Failures claims that space that failure produces, describing the cast-off projects and turns of phrase that no one wanted. It’s a wry celebration of failing over and over again.
By beginning the title of each poem in the chapbook with “dear,” Sager displays tenderness towards his failures. He speaks to them in the second person, and their failed traits appear in glimpses.
“Dear Foreign Objects” begins:
You wanted to be a poem about war and xenophobia,
but I know nothing about war or xenophobia.
So I arranged you into a list of nouns, like rings and folding chairs, then called you a
poem because I have an ego problem.
Saying “Dear” in the title and “You” in the first line, the poet addresses his poem as an entity he’s failed to serve, lacking the knowledge to make it what it “wanted to be” but refusing to let it go. The poem failed at being about war and xenophobia; the poet failed at writing that poem, and then failed some more by having an ego problem.
The ragged, uneven line length throughout the chapbook reinforces its conversational tone. Later in “Dear Foreign Objects,” a parenthetical aside displays the self-questioning that recurs throughout:
(I was going to make a joke here, that you’re like a diaper,
but that’s kind of sad, to compare you to a diaper.
Anyway that comparison is wrong, you’d have to be a frequently defecating child
for the simile to work, because the diaper is the shit I’ve thrown away
and not the poem you’re constantly becoming.)
Breaking down the joke he was going to make, Sager overexplains this incorrect simile. The chapbook is deeply self-reflexive, yet rewards even a facile reading with humor. The humor is particularly acute if the reader is a poet: a frequent perpetrator of his or her own failures.
Another overexplanation begins “Dear Orphans:”
You begin with Facing the truculent moonlight.
Truculent means “aggressively or sullenly refusing to accept or do what is asked.”
In other words, moonlight is not truculent.
I like the sound of certain words, sometimes I let the sound drive and put meaning
in the car seat.
The first time I read “In other words, moonlight is not truculent,” I laughed out loud, recognizing my own tendency to “let the sound drive and put meaning in the car seat.” Dear Failures constantly examines the act of making poems. Accordingly, “Dear Orphans” follows the structure of the failure it addresses, ending with
You end with the passengers who tried floating eventually drowned.
That sounds like the fate of everything ever attempted.
Throughout Dear Failures, amused ambivalence meets the questions of fate and existence. It’s as if the chapbook is shrugging in uncertainty, saying “Who knows what anything is really about.” The first and last poems both mention Buddhist ideas of identity and oneness, repeating the circular structure of individual poems on the full chapbook’s scale.
The poems make frequent allusion to canonical writers and artists (Mark Rothko, James Joyce and John Ashbery are just a few) as well as popular culture. These inclusions add an element of pastiche to the collection, assembling Gertrude Stein-esque repetition or a Salman Rushdie quotation into Sager’s own failures. Imitation is a form of failure, but so is the excessive ego required to make something unique. It’s easy to begin wondering what wouldn’t be failed. And maybe failure contains success: “In my beginning is my end,” Sager writes at the end of “Dear Rocket Sea,” appropriating and anagramming from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker.”
While procrastinating on this review, I went to a reading by Jenny Boully and Mary Ruefle. Boully read selections from her own “book of failures,” describing it as “the projects that didn’t finish themselves.” Midway through her reading, Ruefle paused to tell the assembled audience, mostly MFA students: “For those of you who think contemporary American poetry is worth something or means anything… (here she paused a beat) it’s not.”
Poetry is positively gluttonous for failure, even through its most apparently successful, published and recognized avatars. While Dear Failures feeds this failure-hunger, it also surprises and entertains.
Dear Failures is available for free at Ugly Duckling Presse
Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.