- Grave Playfulness
74 Pages; Print, $10.00
In the long, long shadow of Confessionalism, American poetry has, in no small measure, relegated itself to a minor and poorly paid subgenre of memoir. Much of this poetry presents the minutiae of family background, bodily processes, and psychic distress as worthy of attention on the basis of their existence rather than the insight or technique the poet brings to them, blurring the line between art and art therapy. Survivors of open mics (some of whom may yet recover sufficiently to write memoirs of their own) can further share war stories of selves expressed that really needn’t have bothered, thanks.
So, it is initially with some trepidation that a reviewer presses on in a book whose first poem begins with the word “I” and repeats it seven more times on the first page’s short lines. But “Voir Dire,” which begins Justin Marks’s second collection You’re Going to Miss Me When You’re Bored, quickly allays fears of yet another book of solipsistic poetry. Taking its name from the legal term for jury selection, “Voir Dire” serves as a six-page, one-stanza introduction to Marks’s persona and technique, which in part consists of appropriation and arrangement of text and speech from sources that include Kierkegaard and Sun Tzu as well as rock lyrics and statements by fellow New York subway riders. The poet speaks of himself but without Whitmanian bombast, instead noting the self and its details in passing, and with a certain amount of detachment, as some of what Chinese lore calls the ten thousand things of this world (One is reminded of Lawrence Joseph’s Curriculum Vitae ). This catalog of perceptions, presented in lines with two principal stresses, gives us sequences such as:
Sometimes I fallfor things I shouldn’t.I think of my parentswith a kindof regret and sympathyfor us all. A process,like anything else.A series of questionsraised in silence.
This grave playfulness of free association continues in a more lapidary way in the free verse sonnet sequence “On Happier Lawns.” How Marks moves from one thought to the next does not lend itself to rational analysis or even a conventional explication of the text, but they do not veer into the studied randomness of the faux-Ashbery that has taken over the pages of many journals like so much inky kudzu. Instead, these poems can be taken as dispatches of loopy truth from an alternative or at least interior reality that does not bludgeon the reader with deliberate alienation or self-satisfied brilliance. Thus, in the ninth poem of this group:
I project myself into the futureas a slogan on a sandwichboard Tennis at 3 Homemadesex tapes I’m so happyI could puke I’m typing so hardIt feels like I chippedSome bones in my fingersAt night, wine and XanaxBursts and inconsistency
If this passage lacks an argument, it can still be read as the document of a consciousness uncluttered by arcana and presented in successive excerpts. This section’s juxtapositions of content and diction can prove both aphoristic and funny, as in the tenth sonnet’s observation “The surf / is rough An agnostic audience.” Sonnet XIII similarly uses the ambiguities of enjambment, unpunctuated lines and the transitive and intransitive meanings of a common verb to encompass both the mundane and the menacing: “How many times was it we fucked / The beach The bed The national / wildlife refuge”
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The success of appropriation and pastiche, though, depends critically on the texts appropriated—what the foodie world now calls “sourcing.” The single-poem section “Naïve Melody,” which serves as intermezzo and parenthetical ars poetica, goes slack in spots as Marks’s borrowed and original text displays the diffuse rhythm and content of mundane speech. To wit, “My cat wakes me every morning at 4 by hooking her claw into / my nostril...