Thursday, March 7, 2013

Poems in the Beauty Parlor: Krystal Languell's Poetry

What a title! Krystal Languell's first book of poetry is Call the Catastrophists. Its file of hard consonants reinforces the alarming-sounding authority of those mysterious experts invoked.

Whenever catastrophists are called, though, it must be for something so dire that ordinary intervention won't do. This isn't, "Call the doctor! Call security!" It's, "Call the oncologist, the hematologist, the seditionist!" "Catastrophist:" This person must have studied deeply for years, must have taken an advanced degree (or have the equivalent in life experience). It's scientific-sounding: the catastrophist would make observations leading to action informed by theory. Will the catastrophist stop calamities? Or keep a life list of disasters in clinical detail?

The abrupt imperative of Languell's title also signals possible horrors to come—perhaps things so ghastly as to make a reader hesitant to lift the book's cover: We've all heard of Pandora's box.

The table of contents for this volume promises no famines or wars, but there are scourges aplenty within—disasters of thought, insight, or control. There are failures of culture, failed promises of technology and communications; the unfailing dull baseness of people.

Under three sections—"Catastrophes," "Salvage," and "Continuum"—are poems like, "Many Lost Cause Creatures Could Form a Very Sad List;" "Post-Soviet;" "Blacker Birds;" "The Future of Bad Times;" "Excuse Me if I Break My Own Heart;" "The Blues Are Merely One More Complaint;" "He Was Stapled, He Was Sewn;" "The Sadder It Becomes;" "Unsatisfactory Progress;" and "Urban Blight."

The titles and topics of Languell's poems sound like the cuts on a CD or LP, which is my point: No one but a comedienne or a country singer could get away with these. Central to Languell's poetry is her eagerness to speak in the tongues of personae that come naturally to her. She never feels the need to leave the working class world scrutinized in this poetry for the brainy, au courant world of academic letters that from time to time intrudes in unlovely guises.

In "Montage Our Way Through Winter," Languell writes in the voice of a woman considering the black-and-white conflict usually assumed between women with intellectual interests and those without:

    I'll use my get out of jail free card
    and my good credit. A stranger
    called me a whore in the subway
    I saw a rat I got lonely I bought shoes
    and ate ice cream I drank all the coffee
    and I made more and I slept it all off.

Add steel guitar and plaintive fiddle. We know the feeling. Her plain series of unadorned statements is spot on. Two pots of coffee that she's still able to sleep off: That is down and out and nearly everyone can relate to that deep, dumb place she uses her chisel to write.

But she's got a "get out of jail free card," and in the last of three stanzas uses it:

    Would you like to be a power couple?
    I'll pick you up at the airport in you
    favorite kind of car. We'll circle things
    to buy in a big catalog...
   Come spring, we could arrive in a new town
   and between your neckties and my rhetoric,
   we'd run a successful mayoral campaign.
   You think I'm joking. Don't laugh at me.

She's moved into a fantasy of the normative American good life. Has she becomes a whore in fact to her husband's riches and wishes, driving him around and—the twist—using her academic accomplishments to support his ambitions? Now she can afford to shop for more than ice cream cones to assuage emotional pain. 

The last line returns us to the present, however, presumably to a present-time male who finds this fantasy ludicrous and does not participate in it. How could a woman with "rhetoric" have such a common dream? Certainly she's "above" it. But what if she really does take it seriously: Are the two worlds mutually exclusive? Are intellectuals rarefied past normality? Should a woman have to compartmentalize her life, assigning different values to different, isolated parts, some of which are forced into secrecy? 

"Montage Our Way Through Winter" is a country tune from the poet who also wrote "Suggestions for Longevity," in which a series of cool, selective observations are submitted to a passionless logic that creates a darkly comic program for health and sanity. Among the suggestions (the poem's opening and closing are quoted):

     You shouldn't try to feed the animals at the zoo.
     This is how people keep getting mauled—ignoring the worry impulse, imagining animals                
         are children.
     I understand; sometimes I'm at the zoo, and I am the zoo....

     Excise any wasteful habits. No more open tabs at the bar. No more cash advances.              
     Cultivate a taste for comparison shopping....

     Ignore research that proves deterioration is random. If you sneak around for drinks, you'll  
        sneak for sex too. You should control the particle that makes you mean.

     You'll want to think the end isn't your fault. Get organized. Go for a hike. Start a non-profit.

     I don't do that kind of thing, but I'm not the one who wants to live forever.

But the pose of disengagement is punctuated by hints that the poem is personal. The general "You" of the first, prescriptive line, has grown into a familiar "you" who is by the end admonished to watch sneaking around and to control mean instincts; whose grandiosity is obliquely but definitively excoriated in the last line. So, while all of us would do well to consider the poet's dry counsel ("Blame nature. No one will notice that it doesn't make any sense." Good point!), here, philosophy is personal. It's invoked as an analgesic and weapon.

Many pages of Call the Catastrophist are filled with brief prose-poems. Languell writes these in conversational language that breaks down any distinction between poetry and common parlance. The prose-poem is also a device she uses very precisely to isolate bits of life's everyday detritus, then to reveal its value. She's the ragpicker on the runway. Witness "Gift Economy," quoted in full:

     At Christmas my teacher gave me a bundle of twigs wrapped in a red bow said in
     Hungary it's used to remind children of punishment like a lump of coal in a stocking
     batted my hands a few times to demonstrate I saved the twigs in a shoebox for six years
     and when Kevin saw me open the box he said Is that memory lane? No one keeps
     memory lane in a shoebox in the trunk of their car I did and I included the jewelry I
     shoplifted from Wal-Mart although I'd never worn it.

"No one keeps memory lane in a shoebox...I did," and what's more..! The poet who sometimes prescribes, flouts conventional expectations and roles on the other hand. 

One general expectation for poetry that Languell upends is for sensual detail, simile or metaphor. There are occasional extended metaphors, as in the poem, "Lease Breaking," in which the woman in a relationship is not so much compared to a caged bird as she is represented as one. But the power in this poet's language derives from word choice, placement, and rhythm. She places us in situations with visual details, and her compression infuses us with capsules of fury, outrage, or frustration. From the prose poem, "Price Point:"

     Dia de los Muertos flavored coffee and mugs with cartoon Billy the Kids retired couples
     on road trips picking hollyhocks from our yard so what could we do but drink and eat
     and smash wine glasses with a golf club? Destruction either internal or external, but 
     something had to crumble: the jail the Kid was held in, the brother-turned-restaurant,
     our house. ...

Just the facts, m'am; but the facts are a matter of precise selection and unadorned language, a mighty team in Languell's yoke. 

So when she changes registers, she wallops us with the emotion that accompanies an unexpected event. I find particularly poignant the poem, "Save These Instructions," one of the few places she resorts to the academic language that she hints from time to time she is taking pains to avoid. "Save These Instructions" is written in two prose stanzas:

     Three men were not well and one died but not the one I thought would doesn't matter
     now another cascade suddenness literally ashes not only is it possible it's a fact if one            
     then my entire family will which is obvious...
     Extreme situational juxtaposition or incongruity followed by specific details then a short
     anecdote that brings in another voice or character....
                                                                                                              ...Surprising use of
     simile or metaphor, disregard secondary characters in favor of meaningful interiority:
     idea, image, epiphanic zinger.

Academic language obfuscates emotional truth; it attempts to quash the reality of primary instinct, which is scary enough. In the face of multiple deaths, I think my whole family will die-—obviously. As if any one of us were free of such primal, emotional thinking. And as if we wouldn't do everything to deny such "primitive," and uncontrollable workings of our minds.

What Languell exposes, then, is not only the paltriness of academic expression—expression by the book or the theory of the times (mocked, even, in "zinger")—but the importance and universality of ideas we dismiss as undignified for being illogical or uninformed by "higher thought." In her poetry, she pares away language that an academically-trained poet must find in use among her peers. If writing is ultimately about editing, Languell's a master of the craft.

It's only Languell's language that it highly edited, though, for it serves the interest of getting closer to emotions that are hard to relive or to reveal. She talks about the things no one wants to talk about, the parts of life that most of us spend our time sweeping under the carpet, carefully never examining, however deeply they scar us or define our lives. She mentions all the unresolved memories that keep us in suspense, haunted. This is the complete last stanza of "Many Lost Cause Creatures Could Form a Very Sad List," shifting between second and first person, is the poem that introduces the volume:

     when you call on the poor to make donations
     when you feel like a shelter dog
     when I hear the word culture I reach for my checkbook
     when I get my period on the way
     to ship a dead woman's things home

This one, like so many of Languell's lyrics, is to be performed a cappella. That is, accompanied by silence, and ending there on silence's unresolved chord.

Krystal Languell, Call the Catastrophists, 2011. BlazeVOX [books], Buffalo, NY.
ISBN: 978-1-60964-090-3


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