Review by Bill Neumire
THE REAL WARNINGS
by Rhett Iseman Trull
P.O. Box 3665
Tallahassee, FL 32315
2008, 94 pp., $15.00
In my ever-expanding search for worthwhile literary magazines, I recently came across Cave Wall, a journal edited by Rhett Iseman Trull and her husband Jeff Trull. After a quick Google search of the editor, I found a handful of poems that demonstrated the rare poetic ability to swerve from humor into pathos and regret. A poem like “Naming the Baby for Mark and Terra,” for instance, initially pokes fun at the ridiculous games we play with naming:
is possible for Thunder/Claw/Cathedral/Wing. Imagine:
how many letters he’ll sign Love, Avalanche
This poem is one of the most entertaining in the collection. It begins light, simply having fun with the idea of naming a child, parodying the ridiculous names only millionaires would give their children. Then it whirls out into the absurd and really has fun:
In the high score columns of which games
blink the initials PWT? Phoenix Wildebeest Trull.
Listen to the roar in twenty-two years
when Mercury Flyer takes the stage, electric guitar
over his shoulder, sparkly indigo pick in his teeth. Hey!
What about Sparkly Indigo? No, make that Indigo Spark.
But after the fun has run its course, the poem turns and becomes denser, more poignant:
as soon as he adventures out of the womb, he belongs to the world,
to its swindle and swoon, its crow and cringe,
where you can’t protect him with a name, you know.
All kids are going to get beat up in some way over something.
At least give him a name he alone can claim as he tumbles
into the fray.
In a recent interview with Go Triad, Trull said of her debut poetry collection, The Real Warnings, “the book is about how life and love are worth the pain.” Winner of the 2008 Anhinga Press prize for poetry, this collection brims with narrative free-verse poems about love, jealousy, insanity, movies, comics, parties, video games and asylums. As a matter of fact, the author explains that many of these poems, though fictionalized, stem from her own adolescent experience with bipolar disorder. Several of these poems are written by a narrator looking back with “the kind blur of hindsight” wishing—or wondering if she should wish—to warn her family, friends, even herself about what will happen. Sometimes they are apologies, sometimes confessions, sometimes accusations, and sometimes jokes. The poems are not an assembly of strangers, but rather they inform each other and accrue meaning from preceding poems.
With 40 poems in 78 pages of poetry, this book demonstrates the poet’s smooth use of metaphorical language, her gift for internal rhyme, and a flood of Carolina sea imagery. Although many of these poems are about romance, break-ups, and jealousy, the book centers around a longer, nine-section poem, “Rescuing Princess Zelda,” about the narrator’s stay in a mental hospital. This poem is populated with characters who endear themselves to the reader: Josh, who plays Nintendo and rescues princess Zelda every night; May, who is in love with all the inmates but sobs after dark; Casey, who plays guitar; Estelle, the orderly who lets Casey play guitar even though the strings are against the rules. At the center of this poem and this collection is a benevolent madness, any danger always directed toward the self. Each disorder catalogued within seems to be simply a reflection of the desires and disappointments, hopes and disillusionments that are universal to characters on the “outside.”
There’s a definite arc in this collection, and it starts with the realization that “love can fail” in the poem “The Last Good Dream”:
And we give
With unthinned hearts, little knowing
How, even if banked by the best words
And buoyed by honesty, love can fail.
Or maybe we do know
And unharbor ourselves anyway.
This knowledge that love can fail pervades the book, yet so does the “unharboring ourselves anyway.” The relationships in this book are full of romance, wit, idiosyncrasies, jealousy, disillusionment, and magic. Ultimately, though the book is centered around the longer poem on a stay in the mental institution, this is a book about love, about the way it fails and then finds itself again, about the way we are built through our relationships, even failed ones.
In terms of style and device, Trull has magnificent command of metaphorical language. In the poem “The Boy in the Full-Length Women’s Fur Coat” she writes, “The sky is a black laugh above him,” and then she ricochets off of that metaphor again in “Solitaire” a few pages later:
he can’t help feeling left out,
As if he’s the punch line to night’s only joke, as if the dreams
He could be having are piling up like unclaimed luggage.
This demonstrates Trull’s acuity with metaphor and simile to build for the reader an emotional connection to the characters in these poems as they proceed from and overlap each other. Likewise, the poet employs images that often take an uncomfortable seat in the Windsor chair of the reader’s mind and stay awhile. Take, for example, this one from “Signs”: “What I can’t say, the tipped-over shopping cart outside Wal-Mart / says for me.”
To be sure, though, Trull’s best, and perhaps most subtle device, is her internal rhyme. It doesn’t beat you over the head like end-rhyme (although she does have a deftly rendered sonnet dropped in toward the end of the book), but it’s there, anchoring the poems with a strong sense of sound, with a calling card attached to these narratives that insists, yes, we are poems. Look, for instance, at this section from “Everything from That Point On”:
drumming your chewed fingernails
with a hollow ruc-a-tuc, ruc-a-tuc on the bumper
of your father’s truck
Now, every reader could use a little levity in a book about love, disillusionment, and contemplations of suicide, and Trull doesn’t fail to offer it up. Look, for example, at “Nobody’s Goddess”:
You’re a goddess we’ve misunderstood.
let us hang our dreams on the hook
of your nose. Let us launch our hopes
behind the talisman of your unibrow.
This is the kind of clever humor at which Trull excels. At times, like in “Picked Up at a Party by Superman’s Super-Hearing,” (which hinges on the final punch line, “Trust me, hon, when it comes / to what matters, / flyboy’s / just a man / after all”) it comes across as too easy, too fluff, but here it’s just the right conglomeration of pathos and punch line.
For most of this book, I was in. I was invested in the narratives, swallowed by the metaphors, and floating in the imagery. There were only a few poems that I glazed over, often the weaker attempts at humor and levity. At its worst, which is maybe two poems, this book can hover over the pages of an emo girl’s suicide diary. At its redeeming best, though, this book is smoothly narrative, populated with great metaphorical language and imagery. Although there are rare exceptions, the narrator of these poems does not wallow in the melancholy of love’s failures, but rather the ability to be a part of the ride at all is often approached with a graceful gratitude.
Trull bookends this collection with her opening poem, “The Real Warnings Are Always Too Late,” a hindsight wish to go back and warn and apologize to her parents for all of the damage she will cause, and then at the end with two crucial poems, the first being “Girls Who Will Never Be Prom Queens.” This is my favorite piece in the collection. It captures all of the themes the author’s been pushing: hindsight, love, disillusionment with love, regret, pathos, even paranoia. The narrator is recalling Mariah, a young girl from her childhood who is dancing in a dress, dazzling all of her onlooker friends. The girls are awash in thoughts of love and benign jealous, but the narrator breaks in:
I want to go outside to the garden
and tell the little girls the truth: that there is no truth.
Love is not bluebells
and tadpoles, I will tell them. It’s not even the sweet
bloom of heartache. One day you’ll look up and see
the stars are not windows. They’re blisters on the sky.
But it wouldn’t matter.
Still those little girls by the marigolds would insist on falling in love.
And here the warnings fall apart. They won’t help. Not only is it too late, but they wouldn’t work, and maybe we wouldn’t want them to, which exactly the vacillation the book leaves readers with:
am (…) relieved
Not to know what’s coming. Do I want us
to die at the same time and turn
into trees or start over
as ourselves: our first
encounter, kiss, our great mistakes
This a fine demonstration of Keats’ negative capability. And this book of poems is a fine read that will leave the reader resonating on the poem that is the book for a good long spell. The Real Warnings is certainly worth the cover price.
Bill Neumire’s reviews have appeared in the Cortland Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Pedestal Magazine, and Umbrella. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Sugar House Review, The Toucan, and Cloudbank. He writes and teaches in Syracuse, New York with his wife and dog. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.