Review by Timothy Bradford
by Jeff Simpson
Steel Toe Books
c/o Tom C. Hunley
Department of English
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11086
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1086
2011, 108 pp., $12.00
In Jeff Simspon’s first collection of poetry, Vertical Hold, people, things, and situations change as frequently and dynamically as the weather of the Great Plains, a place where cold fronts barrel down from Canada and ride up over moisture-laden warm fronts from Mexico to engender Coke bottle-green skies, chaotic winds, and sometimes, tornadoes. But Vertical Hold delivers the seemingly changeless local element, too, a necessity when portraying a place such as Oklahoma with its Boomer Sooner families, tight-knit small-town dys- and functional communities, and allegiance to TV, football, bar-b-que, dominoes, and stag parties. Thus, unresolvable tensions between change and stasis, between jazz-like postmodernism and folk-like regionalism, underlie this tight, gutsy, and impressive collection that was a finalist for the National Poetry Series before being published by Steel Toe Books in 2011.
Simpson writes of change and stasis in primarily medium to long lines of often breakless stanzas, and he demonstrates an impressive ability to keep the energy flowing through imaginative and associative leaps. For example, in the monostrophic forty-four line “Miami, OK,” the poem opens:
My parents’ bedroom, 1987, gateway to the land
of Technicolor and remote controls, where every Thursday
that electric opening fueled by stereophonic guitars
and Afro-Caribbean drums would echo through the house …
The exotic land of Miami comes to this Oklahoma-bound speaker through Miami Vice, the late 80s TV series, the inside joke being that Miami, Oklahoma, really does exist. But what makes the poem matter is where Simpson takes it from there. Later, he writes:
late at night,
listening to our parents have sex from our twin bunk beds,
giggling at the asthmatic breathing and muffled moans
that sometimes sounded like pain, I’d picture his ghost-image
lingering on the screen, all beard stubble and white teeth,
watching them make love in the dark.
Don Johnson, star of Miami Vice, morphs from an icon on the screen to a ghostly presence in the house, the ghost of Hamlet’s father for the MTV generation, during this embarrassing yet informative childhood experience before the speaker’s final observation and confession: like his mother, who desired Don Johnson as a savior from “the hopelessness of Oklahoma,” he too desires what he cannot have, lives perpetually in “the kingdom/ of desire … standing on a better beach closer to Miami.” Both the TV icon and the desired objects transform in the course of the poem, but a desire for something better, a universal human trait perhaps more effectively brought to the surface by living in parts of Oklahoma, remains the same throughout.
What do we desire? What is better? Simpson delves into both of these questions throughout the book. In “Ode to the Man in the Red Sweatpants,” the speaker reflects on how the down-and-out moments of his own life pale when compared to those of the methamphetamine addict on an episode of COPS who, after creating a batch of kitchen sink meth, “boils/ the coffee filters to siphon every last residual/ molecule.” After reflecting and free-associating on the numerous ways we all get by and strive for something better, even if these ways are often counterproductive, the speakers says:
Picture the lady in Tulsa who got busted filming
love scenes with her lab and blue heeler,
my urologist advising me to drink more water,
masturbate less. And what about the man in red
And then returns to the reality TV anti-hero of the poem, who is tackled by a police dog and escorted to the squad car. By the end, the speaker acknowledges the ever-present possibility of death, especially a violent one, and implicates à la Charles Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur” the reader too in this voyeuristic, relativistic, and chemical-laden thing called life.
In “Stag Night,” all the requisite characters and pieces—young, bored men, unavailable women, fatty food, alcohol, drugs, and rock n’ roll—are present, but the way Simpson arranges and associates them keeps them fresh, “news that stays news.” A waitress bringing “buffalo wings smothered in ranch dressing” leads to “exaggerated claims from the past” and the anecdote of stealing organs from a half-torso dummy used in a junior high science class, which in turn causes the speaker to reflect on the nature of being: “I remember she told us a man/ is the sum of his parts. Didn’t someone say/ things fall apart?” After the drunk bachelor flirts with the waitress “who smiles and laughs/ at his jokes though she looks as tired and bored/ as those of us still sober enough to recognize pity,” the party heads back to a hotel suite. Joints, porn, strippers and Led Zeppelin ensue, but the speaker remains sober enough to realize the revelry is at least partly motived out of a desire to avoid what they’re “afraid/ to see—beer bellies and double chins, the flaccid/ future dangling before our eyes.” Then, after the strippers’ bouncer calls an end to the evening, the party, and poem, end: “We go quiet like wildebeests in the presence/ of a predator—lesbian nurses on the TV, Nine Inch/ Nails on the stereo.” Simpson’s ability to combine such brutal insight, a deft simile or metaphor, and pop culture references shines in this and many other poems in the collection.
Throughout the book, humor acts as a counterpoint to the wistfulness, desire, and longing, both within more serious poems and in lighter poems such as “Ode to Love Handles,” which begins, “Pencil You look like the Michelin Man/ onto a list of things not to say during sex” before confessing a variety of shortcomings, including a mini bar that consists of “the kitchen cabinet with the half/ bottle of Crown, plastic cups, birthday napkins,/ and a blender you’ve used on two occasions.” A bit later, the poem continues, “You have to say,/ I will have potatoes mashed in gravy, spare ribs// and apple pie because I got a meat tooth/ and a sweet tooth and room for all the sides,” and then declares, in a beautifully polyphonic line given its literal and figurative meanings and its mixing of The Beatles and Walt Whitman, “I am the walrus, and I contain fucking multitudes.” In the middle of “Letter from a Hypochondriac,” which ends with a serious consideration of mortality provoked by the speaker’s father’s “hazy breathing,” the speaker confesses, “When I thought I was going blind/ due to migraines I suffered while reading Milton,/ I consulted WebMD, which was not helpful.” And in “B.A. in English,” the humor and pathos are deeply intertwined as the speaker works with a brain-damaged former “hardcore biker” who can’t remember if chilly refers to weather or food and whose mistaking of home for gnome renders him paranoid about the hat he wears to cover the scars from his motorcycle accident.
Formwise, while medium- to long-lined monostrophes do a lot of the heavy lifting and fit Simpson’s freewheeling, associative style well, he varies this approach in many places, which keeps the collection fresh. For example, “Snafu” is a seven-page poem that features short, sometimes even one line, stanzas and a more lyrical than narrative mode. The poem still issues from an identifiable, single speaker, a denizen of some suburbia somewhere, and popular culture still rubs its “LCD brightness” against “the cool air,” but the narrative drive of many of the other poems is replaced with disparate, lyrical observations and reflections, such as “The air is heavy with the smell of dryer/ sheets and charcoal grills” and “I would live in that space if I could,/ caught between cause and effect,// the seconds before a raindrop hits the windshield” and “What I know is that space is a vacuum.// What I know is this sky and its disappearance moves me a little,/ a sudden drop in pressure, a catch in the throat.” This collection of moments, of “luminous details,” undercuts the poem’s title, “Snafu,” in a wonderful manner, yet the poem retains enough centripetal force via the speaker’s voice to convey a coherent setting.
There is a short refrain that appears midway through “Snafu” and at the end: “We are. We is. And is is everlasting … You are. You is. And is is everlasting.” Here, as in other poems, the poet’s need to reach for conclusion and grand revelation at the end feels unnecessary; the sheer power of observation, the rich and faithful recording of this or that corner of world in all its dynamic and static forms, are enough. This need for closure belies the complexity of what is, which the poet is attuned to and acknowledges, both implicitly and explicitly, throughout the collection. Nonetheless, many other poems, such as “Phantom Pains,” “Into Soil,” and “Color Depicting the Inherent Value of Things,” reject this writerly ending strategy in favor of a much more readerly strategy, and the collection as a whole arcs in this direction, showing Simpson’s interest in aesthetic diversity and exploration.
Overall, Vertical Hold is a beautiful book, both to hold and to read. Steel Toe Books did a great job with the design, which features a cover image of two dated, blank-screened televisions beneath a downturned horse shoe, a wonderfully funky font for the poem titles, and a clear but distinctive font and layout for the text. The text itself “contains multitudes” in relation to both content and form, sometimes holding the picture on the screen long enough for grand narratives to unfold, sometimes letting the picture roll across the screen such that distinct, momentary images are all the reader gets. Either way, the reader is challenged, sometimes to follow along, sometimes to make meaning, but always to face age-old human dilemmas about identity, mortality, desire, and form.
Timothy Bradford is the author of the introduction to Sadhus (Cuerpos Pintados, 2003), a photography book on the ascetics of South Asia, and Nomads with Samsonite (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), a collection of poetry. Currently, he is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University.