In a rare 1966 radio interview in which he discussed “These Lacustrine Cities” in great detail, John Ashbery said “We must draw the line between obscurity and incomprehensibility. I firmly believe that poetry must communicate. It’s true that some of my poems are obscure, but this may be because I feel that one can communicate more things more directly, obscurely—at least at certain times—than directly.” While reading Trey Sager’s chapbook O New York, this idea of obscurity and its value came to mind many times, because just as much as Sager’s poems are obscure, are they also brilliantly systematic and intensely provocative.
O New York is divided into 4 sections. While the first section is introduced by the book title itself, the second is entitled “The Agreement,” the third “The Economy,” and the fourth “The Member.” These section titles and their edifice are pivotal, not only as applied to the poems they introduce, but as archetype of the mechanism that operates beneath the very fascia of this book. Separately, these sections are self-contained limbs of consideration—digits of surveillance and response. Collectively, this book is a body, a schema, a technical “how-to” manual. How-to see place. How-to see relationship. How-to see condition. How-to see individual:
The above excerpt is extracted from the full-length poem that solely comprises the first section of the book. Sager’s formulaic slant nimbly mingles with the unskinned vulnerability which ripples throughout the speakers voice. The salient complexity lies both within the lines themselves, which are heavily enjambed and almost entirely without signifying punctuation; as well as their content, sparsely packed with metropolitan inference, tender address, and obscure reverie. This maneuvering of figure and feeling elicits a host of meanings, and continuously forces the reader to direct and re-direct their attention toward the poem—which shifts course frequently without hint or hesitation, and resolutely thrusts forward without so much as a water break.
Much like its totem city, O New York can feel congested and overwhelming when one first arrives (especially if you are a closet introvert like me.) Accordingly, Sager aptly provides his reader with a warning which reads just as ominous as “swim at your own risk.” Contrary to the preceding section, “The Agreement” contains this one, very succinct poem. While remaining true to Sager’s veiled aesthetic, one can discern a clear, even terse, message—however uncomfortable things are about to get, the reader is culpable in the discomfort:
This poem instigates a sizeable degree of self-examination; one cannot help but magnify the fourth line “You agree.” While this poem functions as a near-ironic disclaimer of sorts, it also succeeds in drawing the reader into its municipal ecosystem at just the right moment—were it to happen any sooner, we would be spooked; were it to happen any later, we would be screwed—because the subsequent section, “The Economy,” is a whole new scaffold of intricate heads-or-tails making.
As if delivered through morse code, the sequence of obfuscated clicks in this poem require keen attention and discernment. Just as one idea builds momentum a new idea intercedes. Just as soon as that idea pushes forward, it too is usurped and taken elsewhere. The three pages of this poem can feel crazy making, like being stuck on a crowded subway car, or trying frantically to hail a cab only to have each one swiped upon approach. The best thing a reader can do in the midst of this poem is embrace the traffic. Grab on, be a part of it, honk your horn if you must but whatever you do, don’t pull off the street. The mobbing will be just as bad when you try again and it will be ten times worse attempting to merge back in:
Brenda Hillman, one of my most inspiring professors at Saint Mary’s College, once told me that “every good poet is a mathematician.” This notion ping-ponged about my mind as I noticed the particulars of syntax and form in O New York. “The Economy,” in particular, requires an absolute willingness to participate on the part of the reader. One must regard and respond to the poem’s concerns, persisting when the poem beckons, pausing when a line is drawn. In reading through this paradigm, the poems skin becomes transparent: “the money needs a body…the word you I understand the least…I want to handle being with conditions…every time to time I sense how little I have saved…your voice reflects a future of a blue & less penetrable earth…decisions amount to statements in the system we joke about…the imagination is the one address the country cannot send us…this is this again…”.
These poems resonate just as polemical as they do surrealist. While the conscious is a lively and thriving presence here, the unconscious leaps are undeniable as the stream of thoughts move fluidly through both cognitive and cavernous mental landscapes. Allusions to economical and societal cognitions are made clear, as is the management of monetary structure deeply intertwined with the effectual grieving of personal connection, or lack thereof. This paves the way for the book’s final section, “The Member”:
“The Member” contains three discernibly separate poems that operate as a syndicate, much like the overarching skeleton of the book, the first lines of which are direct addresses to the poem itself: “Hello poem,” “Thank you poem,” and Good-bye poem.” Similar in line and form to the title poem, “The Member” is without doubt the most personal and available. Close to confessional, the reader will feel the great and tangible power in the speaker’s admission of quarantine, loss, and confusion.
The notable shift to this disrobed tone gives way to an unrestrained approach to the “you.” In a solemn plea, the speaker reveals himself as the feral, dismayed product of the city, the agreement, and the economy. In this final section, the originating obscurity has lifted. There is no point in masking the reality. W, X and Y have happened…and now, here is Z:
Much like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” these lines shout off the page of the violation in consumerism, the confusion in consumption, and the often painful stirring that comes with awareness. O New York is a work of nerve, distress, and engagement. By the time one has made their way through the buildings, the cars, the lights, the sounds, the masses, the book has become a byzantine city centre and the reader one of its civilians. When approaching this book, be prepared to pump the brakes a bit. These poems are not to be rushed through and probably are not best suited for “light reading” just before bed. They are however highly cerebral and inspiring—constantly challenging the reader to let go of how they think they “should” read a poem, and in turn, let go of how they “should” see their environs and within such, themselves. This book is one of intimacy, albeit cryptically so. I highly recommend reading O New York (as well as Sager’s other online chapbook with Ugly Duckling Presse Dear Failures) to those who are interested in seeing what happens when the lights burn out, sound depletes stability, and the strictures of a city—a person—become permeable.
O New York is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Melissa Burke is a poet living in San Francisco, finishing her MFA in Poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a Poetry Editor and Social Media staff member at Omnidawn Publishing, as well as an Education & Children’s Events Assistant at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.
My first camera was a Polaroid 600 One Step Flash Instant Film Camera. I was eleven when it was given to me. I used it nearly daily. Later in my life, I found those Polaroid’s in an old shoebox. There was a boringness about many of them that made me wonder why I had ever thought to save them. In a choice few however, there was a beautiful oddness amidst the tedium—some slant of the lens that captured a moving hand, some gradient light that turned everything orange. The poems in Michael Earl Craig’s latest book Talkativeness remind me very much of those few, beautifully odd Polaroid’s.
Poems that at first appear to be a straightforward exploration of the ubiquitous essence of everydayness, turn out to be everything but clear-cut. Craig’s poems are deviously methodical, wildly imaginative, acutely self-aware, shrewdly funny, and more often than not, deeply serious. I find myself laughing aloud when reading Craig’s poem “Wild for the Lord”:
Someone is sitting on a tall stool beside me.
I have just very carefully cut
my best friend’s wife’s bangs.
My watch feels like a small corpse on my wrist tonight.
Simultaneously, I feel scared. I feel scared for the speaker of the poem. I feel scared for myself in it. I feel scared for all of us and the weight that exists in our lives even when we are not aware of it bearing down on us. Craig’s poems—his Polaroid’s—allow the reader a portal into an interior. One that edges humor with solemnity, draws hesitation out of certainty, and infuses tidiness with bedlam.
“We can feel a strange frequency running/through the house. A gentle buzzing/coming from the basement. There is/a basement beneath the basement.” The first four lines of the poem “Connect Four” exemplify what I believe is the machine that operates underneath each of these poems. Craig asks us—requires us—to move beyond our comfortable perception and shift the camera lens slightly, seeing just beyond the eye, just beyond the everyday:
There is a bullet here on my desk.
Tipped over on its side.
Its jacket is brass
and perfectly cylindrical.
The human eye sees what the human brain thinks it sees. Craig’s poem calls this idea into question, asking us: what if this were the other way around? What if we were to think what we actually see? And what if what we see is more than we could ever, possibly think? This transmutation of reasoning is exactly what occurs in “Quick Sketch of a Bullet”:
And so I close
these thoughts on this bullet
by making with it a few straight lines
on a sheet of paper. By writing
my name. And date of birth.
And, “I am from Dayton.”
Then a few more straight lines.
The plainest lines imaginable.
By the end of the poem our vision begins to transcend itself, not by a description of the transcendence, but rather through the ladder that Craig writes into the poem. As the etymological roots of the word suggest (trans: across, scandere: climb) this poem demonstrates exactly how to climb across—or through, or beyond—the limits of the readers own discerning mind.
This experience is a powerful one, and thus is filled with the capacity to be overwhelming if not controlled. Craig does keep control though. He softens our landing into this new perceptual sphere through his distinctive, wry quirk. Though not the first poem in Talkativeness, the title poem encapsulates the intelligible circuitry that operates in Craig’s work. “Talkativeness” brings us to a specific place, to a specific moment in that place, to a specific experience of that moment in that place:
He threw a dollar bill at her, as hard as he could.
It fluttered to the floor before it hit her.
She waded up a five-dollar bill and bounced it off his head.
In the next room I stood very close to a mirror
and examined my teeth. The longer I looked at them
the more they looked completely foreign to me.
Through the poem we find ourselves also staring at our teeth very closely in a mirror. We find ourselves also sensing that they are “completely foreign” to us. We find ourselves also feeling utterly terrified. This poem encapsulates a number of themes that prove evident throughout the book: fact, fiction, perception, existence—and the questioning that occurs behind each of these. These central veins run though even the most succinct of moments in Craig’s poetry, such as in “Shave Your Beard”:
I say “shave your beard” into the mirror.
I have a cold cup of coffee in one hand—
a fine skin of dust or mold across its surface.
“You have been standing here a long time,”
I say. And, “You come here often?”
Of beauty, Baudelaire once said that it “always contains a certain degree of strangeness.” Not only did he say that there was a certain degree of strangeness, but moreover that “it is (beauty’s) hallmark, its special characteristic.” I would be inclined to agree, especially when considering Talkativeness. And one has to wonder where this strangeness, this interestingness, comes from.
When I had finished reading Talkativeness, I read the very brief author bio on the back on the book. I was struck by two things: his interesting choice of trade and where he currently lives. Aside from being a poet, Craig is a certified journeyman farrier. A farrier apparently (thank god for Google) is one who specializes in the hoof care of horses.
When I initially read “Advice for Horsemen” I did not know of Craig’s work as a farrier. With this knowledge, it is really interesting as both a reader and a writer to see how the everydayness that Craig surrounds himself with gets distilled through this stark, sobering reality and comes out of the filter with a quality of peculiarity that only he can produce:
When trying to catch a horse it helps if you look away.
Eye contact just pisses them off.
But you can’t fake looking away, horses
know when you are doing this.
You have to really look away.
Some horsemen never come out of this.
Craig resides in Livingston, Montana, and after visiting the “Welcome to the City of Livingston, Montana” website, somehow it seemed fitting. The following is a quote from the website’s homepage. “Nestled on the banks of the Yellowstone River, Livingston is surrounded by three mountain ranges: the Crazy, Absaroka and Bridger mountains. With a population of 7,000, Livingston provides all the amenities of a major city but offers the safety and charm of small-town living.”
Craig’s poetry often stems from the pastoral, small-town vista. “I live in an experimental town./We have 17 cops and the only thing/any one of them can ever say, ever, is/‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles!’” The mundane quality of a small town has the capacity to feel both comforting and extremely disturbing. This quality is palpable in Talkativeness. As a result of his ordinary and accessible diction, we find ourselves organically transported into Craig’s curious realm, seemingly naïve to the fact that we have been transported at all and, moreover, to how truly unfamiliar and profoundly troubling things are about to get:
I am alone inside
my goggles. I am
things here have been
like a nose job gone
so very wrong.
Amongst all of the terrifically unique attributes of Craig’s poetry (and there are many), what I am most fond of is how intrinsically personal each poem feels. While one can certainly read the universality of certain experiences in the fabric of these poems, there is an undeniable personal and very sentimental quality woven into the pockets. “The Trench Coat” is perhaps my favorite poem in Talkativeness. Of course this poem includes the distinctly anomalous, sharp, and uncomplicated diction that we have come to appreciate and desire from Craig. Yet in addition to those qualities, this poem requires of itself the capacity to hold space for a hugely tangible emotional cog:
I look at myself in the mirror, the air
across my back and shoulders warming, slowly.
“Listen, I have been aloof my whole life,” I say.
“And I can be emotionally dishonest,” I say.
“I sometimes smile when I mean to wince,” I say.
“The human body is the mask,” I say.
“That’s the idea anyway,” I say
“A dog humps his cushion,” I say.
“We sense an inner calm,” I say.
Somehow, we do sense an inner calm by the end of Talkativeness, which is quite incredible considering the bizarre little world that we’ve been inhabiting up to this point. The calm is ponderable though. By means of the deep, immutable connection that Craig has established between all things—human, animal, land, inanimate object—and the allowance for the unknown reality amidst it all, we move sinuously through Craig’s weird realm of existence. After which, we return to our own world feeling that we know something more, something deeper even if less definitive, about ourselves than we did before. As a result of this transcendence, the next time we look through those old Polaroid’s, the next time we “walk through the market looking for water chestnuts” we will “feel something different”—and we will have Talkativeness to thank for that.
Talkativeness is available from Wave Books
Melissa Burke is poet finishing her MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga. She is a social media and bookstore outreach staff member at Omnidawn Publishing, Inc. She lives in San Francisco, CA.