If it bends, it’s funny

Gabriel Gudding on Jennifer L Knox’s “Chicken Bucket,” from A Gringo Like Me

Well, this hit on something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. This whole persona poem, the whole aesthetic of shock or shlock, the trailer park trolling. Is “Chicken Bucket” making fun of poor folk? I think of Shannon Bramer’s excellent poem “Our Prosthesis,” which won the Short Grain contest a while back. I give it to you here:

On Saturday night I hid his prosthetic arm. He was drunk, it was easy, when he tried to run after me he stumbled, fell, hit his head on the corner of the coffee table. I was drunk too, sad, acting stupidly. Earlier that night he had been flirting with my sister and I felt neglected and negligible next to her in her pink sweater. I didn’t like the way he kept touching her with his false limb; I didn’t like the way she kept giggling at the strange feel of the plastic. I had paid for his prosthesis, after all, so perhaps this explains my possessiveness. When we got home we kept drinking. Before bed I started undressing him: his socks, his pants, his underwear, his sweater, his shirt, his arm. He came after me and fell. His forehead bled all over the carpet. I hid his arm in the basement. Dressed his wound. Put him to bed. Showered. Made tea. I read The Idiot until deep into the night. My sister doesn’t even know who Dostoyevsky is.

I love this poem, published in Bramer’s The Refrigerator Memory from Coach House Books. It’s unpredictable, has those well chosen details, and that killer ending that comes out of nowhere. This is the kind of poem that mines the class trenches. Thinking too of the Sudden Service, the new book of poetry by Elizabeth Bachinsky, due out from Nightwood next month. Here’s a sample from Sez Jenni:

Truth is, when his hands were on me, I was fire.
Straight through to my gut, I felt my heart beat
in my body like heavy metal…that oh
baby kind of get-your-hard-on-over-here-
loving I’d only heard of at lunch in the smoke pit
at school—tough girls running off their mouths
so hard you’re sure they must be lying: cock this
and fuck that: it’s all so unbelievable, isn’t it—
the things girls say?….

Both of these poems all dive into the uncanny of the quotidian. Certainly a fetish in narrative poetry for the past several decades. As for the Knox poem, like Gudding there is something about the tone that suggests a slightly different motive. I’ve long been a fan of Knox’s work–mostly because she has a way of throwing a curve ball that gets me in the gut, but also of course, because she’s funny. Direct and clear and funny.

In any case, I think that Bramer’s poem is funny, but not quite satire. Bachinsky’s poem isn’t satire either. And as for Knox’s poem, if it is satire, what is it that’s so funny? We in the 20th century don’t seem to quite get satire. Shouldn’t there be a kind of bite to it? A spur of recognition? Or am I just a little sensitive to the current fashion of trolling for material in “other worlds?” Maybe it’s the fact that I did spend a good portion of my childhood in such venues that if I get a whiff of judgement under the satire it stings.

As Alan Alda said in Crimes & Misdemeanors, “if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks…” Where is the line?? I guess that’s the question. Gudding’s treatise on satire makes sense, but like he says, either way we have to accept that we’ve engaged in a kind of voyeurism. A kind of peeking down a dark alley without having to put ourselves at any kind of risk. Is that any different from the kind of mainstream poetry aesthetic that sets the poet up on his or her front porch observing the world through the clear lens of a cool chardonnay? I’m not sure.

Look out for Bachinsky’s book: she kicks form in the ass with her knocked up girls and sexy b&e boys. There is a whiff of voyeurism here too, it’s so gritty the print seems inked on sandpaper.

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