June 7, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsShort Takes/Mixed TapeWriting

Poetry is fun, 4 real: On Adam DeGraff’s Wherewithal and Phil Estes’s High Life

For serious writers, writing is worrying about not being read. Although the act in itself has immense power, it’s the proliferation of one’s words beyond herself and her immediate circle that also greatly matters, is of supreme interest. No matter the circumstances, writers want to be read, plain and simple. In the spirit of that belief, then, two recently published poetry collections—Adam DeGraff’s Wherewithal and Phil Estes’s High Life—deserve to be read by a greater audience. Both were published in the last six months but neither collection has, to my knowledge, been reviewed yet, and hopefully the brief reviews below incite greater conversation and discussion.

Written between 1994 and 2004 and serving as Degraff’s first book, Wherewithal is a breezy pleasure to exist within, one that serves to illuminate for the reader that playing with words is an inherently fun process. Comprised of four different sections with, per the collection’s lengthy “Acknowledgments and Notes” section, each poem dedicated to a different person or thing (“Specifics Questioned” was inspired by C.A. Conrad’s fingernails), Wherewithal is a book that was obviously written more out of a love of words, people, and music than out of some burning need or desire to be published. To be reductive about it, there are two types of poems in the book: those that contain loosely-strict narratives and those that enjoy the linguistic freedom inherent to language; these latter poems deal with much rhyme, consonance, and assonance and are a joy to read aloud. As an example of the former, here is an excerpt from “San Francisco Day”:

Dreamt about delivering my own baby. Didn’t catch who the mother was. Watched MTV Road Rules in Mexico and grubbed. The only thing that stays with me is sincerity of Kerouac as it was pointed out in review of new insincere biography. Drank Barefoot Merlot with Will Yackulic. He showed me his new cloud works and we listened to the new Palace. I don’t mind mediocrity so much, but it’s nice to see and hear something great, especially at once. Dave the mechanic got us stoned. We went to Open Mind Records. Someone kept saying, “pst psst pssst psssst.” I looked up and it was Gabrielle. On the way to my house we found a huge industrial wine rack. What will I do with it? Paint it cherry red and give it away to some wine drinker as a gift, maybe…

And as an example of the latter, here is the entirety of “Poem”:

Osiris sears sheer sky
while shadows scatter stars
and scars of a stereo stylus
 
Stacked too far away
from where buoys
set sail, leaving—
 
Clinging to you, myself
upon a stealth mission
to bars and step off
 
to abrupt loss, to less,
leaving, clinging to notions
of nothing I know of
 
for nothing I know of

 

Baldly put, this is the kind of poetry that I enjoy reading. It asks something weighty of its reader, certainly, but it also allows her to simply steam and revel in, from prose block to prose block, stanza to stanza, the language. It further doesn’t aspire to be anything it’s not. Like all poets, I’m sure DeGraff is interested in winning big awards and placing poems in publications like The New Yorker and Poetry. But regardless of that he also seems to really enjoy writing poems, something that, sadly, doesn’t come through for me in every new book of poetry I read. With its mixture of narrative works and works that are more language-inspired, Wherewithal is a great book to give to any fledgling poet, someone who doesn’t know why or what she likes yet…but does know that she likes poetry, likes to write poems.

To end with the poem “Last Night,” which is the last poem of Weekend of Reverie, the book’s second section:

Glowing phosphorescent footprints
receding before me as I
walk backward
into the
sea

Have five greater lines of poetry ever been written?

*

Very different from DeGraff’s Wherewithal but nevertheless of a similar “it’s fun to write poems” mindset, Phil Estes’s High Life toys with the nature of persona and character in a way that many contemporary poetry collections shy away from. There are several different personages that appear and reappear in High Life, among them The Priest, The Sommelier, Alexandria, The Old Man from The Cave and The Poet. Estes is an absurdist poet to a degree—on the volume’s back cover Johannes Goransson declares him to be the “Mallarme of the Strip Mall.” But his absurdity is filigreed with tenderness, eerily earnest tenderness. The below “Shibboleth” is a fairly representative poem from the collection:     

The Sommelier and the Poet shake their heads together, which is, like, the first time ever. The Poet cuts the pineapple in thick slices with a small knife. The Sommelier opens a bottle of Thunderbird.

“I would’ve hocked it, but everyone is dead.”

He does a good James Mason, but no one remembers James Mason.

The Poet knows his voice “sounds like a man being thrown through a bus window.”

“All we can do is pray, though we haven’t thought up any gods yet.”

Everything pairs with everything: the wine in sports-bar cups, the pineapple slices on old camping plates.

The word shibboleth means “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important,” although how knowledge of that definition furthers one’s way into the poem is a bit unclear. But it doesn’t really matter—even if one isn’t privy to how the title fits (or does not fit), the poem itself is too silly and fun to read to be bothered. The beauty of The Sommelier (someone who literally is an expert on wine) cracking opening a bottle of Thunderbird—a wine that no less authority than bumwine.com called “[t]he undisputed leader offive in foulness of flavor…[W]e highly discourage drinking this ghastly mixture of unknown chemicals unless you really are a bum”—is pure gold. The James Mason bit—James Mason being a now-little-known English actor—is great as well. That The Poet also believes his voice to sound like “a man being thrown through a bus window” is also very humorous, as poets were, of course, the original bards, making their living through orally reciting both their works and the famous works of others.

Many of the poems in High Life are like “Shibboleth”; they subvert the stereotypical contemporary poetic experience, meaning that all of the work in the collection is definitely poetry and yet at the same times it reads like some “other” category, one that defies genre and any quick and easy categorization. In this respect it reminded me of Laura Solomon’s great 2011 collection The Hermit. It also reminded me of Jack Handey’s indispensable Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.With its insouciance and levity, High Life allows its reader to, from poem to poem, fully embody the book in a way that most collections don’t, and the fact that there aren’t any sections in the volume greatly helps in terms of such readerly suction. As someone who reads a lot of contemporary poetry books, I’m sad to say that I regularly can wait to turn the page in a lot of them. But High Life is a volume that I would truly call a page-turner.

Why do good books not get good reviews—or get no reviews whatsoever? There are too many reasons to count, but it’s heartening to know that whatever the latest “poetry is dead” faux-argument is occurring right now, there really are great poets out there writing great poems. Please read Adam DeGraff and Phil Estes. Please read Wherewithal and High Life.