Review by Peter Matera (email)
STANDING IN LINE FOR THE BEAST
by Jason Bredle
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Western Michigan University
Department of English
1903 W. Michigan Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5331
84 pp., $14.00
There's a good chance you'll end up in a Jason Bredle poem. Of course, you'll have a better chance if he actually knows you. And if Standing In Line For The Beast is any indication, it's practically your destiny if you've left him for another man. This may take your life in a completely different direction, but it may be worth it. After all, the poems that span his prize-winning debut have the mythmaking potential to turn your ho-hum existence into a legend worthy of Kesey's Merry Pranksters, excepting that whole psychedelic thing. (I know, try telling that to the horse in this collection's The Horse's Adventure, wherein the beast unwittingly moseys through a gateway to another dimension and finds itself alternately on the moon, being shot out of a cannon, and in a Whitesnake video among other things, before finally arriving back at Tom Wallace's farm for the satisfying denouement.)
Consider: Kirk has peed into the lava dome of Mount St. Helens; Suzanne has hung a parasol in the corner of the room that confounds any attempt to speak or think clearly; if anybody's walking out after sex, it'll be Todd Bernstein; Don Simpson cares about safety and safe driving; Marc McKee won a collection of romance novels at a Valentine's Day dance; Bill ruined his suit trying to turn a casket right side up in the rain; Anne writes poems about neglected cats shot in the head; Dave shot a dog with an arrow (these two should get together--alas, they never do); and so on.
With this ballooning cast, there's barely room for a few names you'll actually recognize: Frida Kahlo, Rick Moody, Michael Ondaatje--Bredle even tags "the guy who played Cockroach on The Cosby Show" (that would be Carl Anthony Payne II)--though they're all squished together in the middle of the book, relegated to the impenetrable bubblegum center of a blow pop. Not to be dismissive; one of the more inspired poems imagines Ondaatje at a poetry reading, clad in leather pants, broken guitar in hand,
Ladies and Gentlemen, are you ready
for some poetry?
And the poem Frida Kahlo exposes the desperation of middle class anonymity with such underhanded composure that it gives me chills--chills!--just thinking about it. Damn you, Bredle. (You'll have to read it for the full effect. No spoilers here.)
Later, in a brilliant microcosm of all-to-real generational immobilization from a poem with the captivating title The Right Hand of Karma is Extending Its Middle Finger, he admits,
...So I guess this
is my note of resignation, my finality--
you win, world, I'm all out of ideas.
Everyone on the golf course looks exactly
like my college Calculus teacher and I don't know
what the hell I'm supposed to do.
Unassuming reflections such as this go a long way toward establishing Bredle's integrity. I've used a few vague but overtly adulatory words here--"mythmaking," "brilliant," and later, "enormously enjoyable"--but I don't want to give the impression that the book is all that exceptional, let alone a crowning achievement. It is, when the final page turns, a debut. These poems are good omens at best, albeit with enough stored energy to make J. Robert Oppenheimer shudder. They give us plenty to get excited about, but they are not resonant or provocative or breathtaking. I may be showing my cards here, but I like a little pause with my poetry. The term is caesura, and Mr. Bredle would do well to use it from time to time. That, and perhaps send his unwieldy verses to finishing school, where they might learn a little self-discipline. I'm not suggesting he employ the tactics of a boot camp sergeant, but right now his poems have as much constraint as a group of preschoolers decorating the classroom Christmas tree. And yes, that is part of their charm.
Then again, in some ways, Bredle's work is sober as a chunk of concrete, though with a great deal more enterprise. That may sound disparaging, but I assure you it's not. Sobriety here is the mark of talent; any hooched up hack can conjure a decent line of poesy. It takes someone who can keep it all together, even if by a thread, even if that thread is threatened by a pair of left-handed micro snips, to spool line after line of such freely associated wordsmithing without it unraveling into a squirrelly mess of self-aggrandizing gobbledygook.
It's evident that people expect a story from him, and he makes no secret of it with frank titles such as No Story, Just a Comment on Some of Anne's Poems and The Classic Story. On that, he delivers, just without much of an eye toward craft. In this way, he is not unlike my good friend Jeremy who, echoing Chekhov, taunted me one night years ago during a discussion of where he gets his ideas: "See that blue cup over there? You want me to tell you a story about that blue cup? Then I'll tell you a story about that blue cup." The problem with a story about a blue cup is that the boundaries are predetermined; the emphasis is on the story and the challenge is to tell it. Having done so successfully is the feat. I don't doubt Bredle's ability to tell stories at a party, say, (nor my friend Jeremy's--they are irreplaceable) but I'm not yet sold on his methods of poetry on the page. Seems to me a lot of persuasive line breaks were neglected, a lot of structural maintenance went ignored.
Objects are springboards for the poetic imagination and Bredle comes across as a bit stunned over what to do with his overwhelming accumulation of them, turning out piece after lengthy piece of list-laden free verse, cramming every nook and cranny with a cacophony of catch-alls. We, in turn, come away from these poems a bit stunned ourselves. Stunned by the breadth of his wit, by the boldness of his voice, and by the endless inner monologue of asides, false starts, circumlocutions, detours, digressions, pitfalls, and pratfalls that guide nearly every poem in the book.
Look no further than the opener, On the Way to the 53-B District Court of Livingston County, October 1, 1999, with its pounding refrain of "It begins…" to get a feel for the majority of what follows. Rare are the poems that proceed without the crutch of repetition, like Bridgeton, with its enormously enjoyable arc from "that moment at age fourteen when...I watched my mother and father get mauled by a huge sideshow tiger" to the re-imagining of the settlers deciding on a name for the town--Grass City? Big Raccoontown?--and how the locals now overcharge for parking at the annual covered bridge festival; and like My Speech at a Local Campaign Rally, with its wonderfully executed diatribe on mixing the personal and political:
… who would you rather have
guide us through the 21st century? A man
who loves to bathe himself in cream cheese,
or a responsible, God-fearing, mostly-clean
sex-lover with the drive and determination
to provide everyone with free green beans
at next year's Catfish Festival...?
That being said, he does tell us with surprising candor what's at stake here. In When Disaster Strikes 4, a poem that simultaneously reels us in with possibility and causes us to wonder what shortcomings must have spoiled the first three attempts, the abyss into which he stares materializes straight from the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, wherein she notes that brother William spent the day of February 9th gathering sticks. Bredle's response?
…I mean, come on,
WTF? Even I do more
than that in a day.
Ah, but don't we all. And don't we all aspire to have someone document our every minor task, our actions of inconsequence (or to document those of others) for posterity? These days, for better or worse, yes. In a fit of irony, this book takes the plunge; it is a brief squall of associations, a paean to gathering the fluky sticks of circumstance in a heap just before – like in a successful prank – the floodgates burst. I highly recommend it.
Peter Matera is largely unpublished, though in his defense he doesn't write much. Instead, he reads mostly borrowed books and watches an inordinate number of films with his wife, all under the gaze of his Affenpinscher and his red mackerel tabby. He's mindful that entropy will get him in the end and therefore reads The New Yorker only for the pictures and has been steadily progressing from cooking his food in olive oil to butter to bacon grease to--one fine day, if he can negotiate it--lard. He welcomes your contact through the e-mail link provided above and wishes you a good day.