- Poetry in the Parking Lot
One of the most frequent criticisms I've heard leveled against poetry as a whole (often in Introduction to Poetry classrooms) is that it's out of touch—a medium that was once the most everyday of arts, the history book and television of the ancient world, has lost track, critics say, of real life; it languishes in the uppermost chamber of an ivory tower, where there's no Netflix or pizza delivery. Where are the poems set in food courts and on interstates? Where are the poems about cable TV and mall parking lots?
CL Bledsoe is hoarding all of them. The landscape of Anthem, Bledsoe's full-length debut after his chapbook _____(Want/Need), is riddled with McRibs, SUVs, sitcoms, adult videos, and "pizza and Fritos movies on TNT." It's a place where Death stays up too late blogging, where vengeful roommates hack email accounts, and Peanuts's Linus considers the difference between his blanket and God.
Even our most down-to-earth poets can tend toward the loftier side of the street; most would render, say, a fast food restaurant with the tone and shape of an impressionist painting, relying on fuzzy dots of color to create an accurate picture without lines clear enough to read neon signs, much less the menu. This could be, at least in part, because the most basic ingredient of poetry is symbol, and poets like our symbols to possess intractable staying power. The contemporary world, chock-full of the quick shtick of advertising and the rapid-fire ephemera of the Internet, must be made to conform to the rules of poetry. It's almost too risky to take on images that are both garishly specific and potentially perishable.
Bledsoe, then, could be a photo-realist, favoring brushstrokes that are almost too precise. At their best, these poems are emotionally straightforward, adept at expressing the recurring qualms and small agonies of daily life. At their worst, however, the photo-realism goes out of focus: The poems are too straightforward, falling prey to narrow scope, easy turns of phrase and linguistically sloppy drifting.
The reader believes the immediacy of Bledsoe's poems because they're happening down the street at the strip mall or in front of your television set. In "Blend In," a speaker goes from hope to heartbreak to resigned, deprecating acceptance. After mocking the cost of khakis and baseball caps, he investigates celebratory street noise: "Thought it might be Jesus / coming back but it was just the McRib That I can afford." Heartbreak is inevitable, but if you're lucky, solace will pop up on the dollar menu. In moments like this, Bledsoe makes poetry conform to the world.
The poem that best blends all of Bledsoe's strengths is perhaps "The Moles." It interweaves images of anthropomorphic moles who repeatedly show up at a speaker's house, wanting to hang out: "They say, 'You never come to our hole anymore. / …Ever since you got that house / you've changed.'" After numerous machinations, including making friends with predators and "explaining hygiene," the speaker decides to move, and packs his books, TVs, and comedy cassettes—the list of the items themselves is a wonderful mix of intellectual and pop figures—into boxes. The interactions between the speaker and the moles are poignant:
They say, "Where's the dirt? Let's dig."And I say, "There's no dirt here." And they look at meas though I've eaten all the worms in the world,and say, "You've changed."
By the conclusion, when the speaker answers the door and "it's the moles, and they're wearing pants," the poem has taken on issues of class, the awkwardness of emergent adulthood, and the guilt of upward mobility, all with the subtly self-critical humor that characterizes many of Anthem's poems.
Bledsoe suffers no shortage of interesting ideas, but in many cases, execution disappoints concept. "Days" begins promisingly, with an image of juggling hours like red balls, and the first few lines maintain focus, but...