December 7, 2018KR Reviews

On Fludde by Peter Mishler

Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2018. 85 pages. $14.95.

It’s difficult not to grin, smirk, purse your lips, or generally screw up your face when reading Peter Mishler’s poems in his debut book, Fludde. It isn’t just the peculiarity of these pieces but the command with which Mishler executes it, taking readers in something like a swift punt along strange but otherwise unassuming canals. Dean Young chose the book for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize from Sarabande, and the choice from this judge makes sense: these are, like so many of Young’s poems, lucidly surreal, achieved through sharp sentence-making, precise vocabulary, and the acute, almost blown-up detail such techniques afford, as demonstrated in this literal mise-en-scène in the poem “Paternity Test,” which describes a banquet at the center of a mansion:

A chair, a table,
a place setting before you.
Fresh-cut flowers.
On a flatscreen,
the Spice Channel
warbles overhead,
its picture scrambling
from pink to green
to black,
and back again.
It’s on low,
explains the child,
but this can be changed,
the monitor twisting
on its rope
above you.

This “monitor twisting / on a rope” is so funny and (literally) askew—it’s precisely how you might conceive of the mounting of a flatscreen TV in a dungeon or castle, and the twisting is precisely the awkward problem that would result. Throughout this collection, Mishler follows his images through to a point of such peculiar detail that they become objects of visual transfixion, making us uncomfortable by their uncanniness, their illogical but nonetheless strangely familiar composition. They become the sorts of images we most often encounter at the center of dreams. Here is another example from the poem “A Vision”:

You had to carry me
in your arms
through the valley
to where the tigress wore
her silver bridle.
In her mouth was a basket.
In her basket,
the pale, young bodies.
None were ours.
Her golden eyes closed
on our grief.

This image of the tigress (which could just as easily have appeared in Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette) is nearly iconographic, and it is buttressed by a kind of sequentiality that is dreamlike insofar as dream sequentiality mirrors the quest (“You had to carry me / in your arms / through the valley”). This mythy intersection of the narrative logic of dreams and quests is what these poems ultimately make use of, explore, and eventually bring outward to help condition “real life,” absorbing elements of contemporary experience into fabulous realms. Mishler is in impressive command of the fable, and his precise sentence craft and keen eye for material detail power an assortment of fabulistic modes. One is the character speech, such as that which constitutes the poem “Little Lord Fauntleroy:”

Little Lord Fauntleroy’s the name:
loyal customer, rewards cardholder,
and rest assured, when I’m in my tomb,
my collar will still be starched with the smoke
of the pheasant breasts served peasant-style
in our family jet scraping over the sea.

Another is the tableau of village life, such as we see in the poem “Blind Minotaur Led by a Child:”

It dwarfs me now:
the chime of horseshoe players in a field,

an oven door half-opening
in the woods behind the school.

A pinecone sinks
into the mire beside the village,

a delivery boy balances two quarts
of steaming broth between his hands.

These examples will stress, I hope, another crucial aspect of these poems (and of fables generally): this is a child’s world. In poem after poem we get the overriding feeling that the narrator is a tall figure standing among children who have been pressed into adult roles, who are role-playing, or maybe even captives in a dream’s game. We get the sense that the narrator has followed the sentences of a bedtime story into the story itself, in dream, in order to accompany the child, to protect, guide, or in more cases, be instructed.

There are several key poems in which the framing of parental concern is especially established. In the poem “To a Feverish Child,” the concern is explicit:

Again I woke up in bed with the morning fear
and again from the window I watched
a string of schoolchildren led down the street
and wished to be you: the sick and absent child
with the chime of fever in your eyes. You haven’t yet
learned how to give, you can lie, grow jealous,
and hide without reprimand, and what’s best,
you’re asleep.

This is a complex sentiment—the speaker is obviously looking after the sick child, but he couches it in nostalgia. This wish to be the child herself is knotted up in all the worries of the caretaker, whose burden of the complexity of the world not only leaves its physical mark on him but shapes his very identity. It is not the “chime of fever in your eyes” but his full visage, as encountered just a few lines later:

You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car
alongside the water to get my thoughts right,
and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip
to watch my face among the neighborhood lights.

This obvious moment of existential contemplation would, in another collection more reliant on moments like it, come off as uninteresting, orthodox—another poet seeking contemplative solitude. But in this otherwise strange and fantastic assortment of poems, it offers an important moment of emotional clarity—that the self is always in the world, “among the neighborhood lights”—and that, for a parent, such a realization implies a kind of duty: to prepare the child for being in the world. This is, as any parent will tell you, no light task, especially not now, in late empire, late history, with its confusions, grotesqueries, appetites, and dread. In “Overall Message,” the speaker is up against tableaus such as this:

The company fleeces hang
in the indoor driving range break room
with feverish openness.
The course pro comments mildly
on the male torso, its pallor and grace.
The vice-chair at the boardroom table
is scraping a laxative in his lap
to the size of an aspirin,
and his lover waits in his penthouse
using her pink can of pepper spray
to strike the keys of a xylophone
into his voicemail to let him know
she’s in the city. I leave the meeting early.

This is a markedly different scene than the lioness with her basket or the boy with his quarts of broth, or even Little Lord Fauntleroy’s private jet or the reservoir lit with the neighborhood lights, but it participates along with all of these in an accumulating vision of a world where dark libidinal and appetitive forces churn just below the glossy material surfaces. Even here at the indoor driving range, Mishler’s sharp details effect an uncomfortable feeling: the “feverish openness” of the fleeces, the laxative being scraped, or the pink can of pepper spray arousing, as it were, the xylophone, which is such a magnificent development of image it feels like it might overflow its own lines. These distort—make comically and monstrously huge—the elements of this world, and while nothing here is perfectly fantastic it certainly feels funhouse-mirrored, LSD-nightmared, without that effect ever being too strenuously worked toward. That’s the real expertise of these poems.

And it’s all just a little bit dark and unpleasant, the psychic debris left in the corners of a mind overwhelmed by our maximally consumerist world. Here we arrive at the title of the collection, Fludde. And here I will call upon a little terminology from dream research, concepts such as “day-residue,” “memory consolidation,” and “sleep spindles,” all terms in which we can readily see an emphasis on the management of a wholesale load of stimuli, and which cast the dream- and fable-scapes of Mishler’s collection as therapeutic descensions into a personal and societal hyperactivity—fueled by late capitalism—in order that it might be understood, or at least managed, not for the sake of the speaker but, as we have seen, for his child, who stands poised at the edge of this overflown terrain. Such is the terror and beauty especially of this moment, from the title poem, which will close this review:

Difficult
child, shrilling lake unhinged,
you stand in a state of mild yawning
in a church of your own gold,
peeling your shadow from
the diving board. . . .
We were told God was winnowing us
into fascinating lutes.
While the flood ranged southward.

Ryo Yamaguchi
Ryo Yamaguchi is the author of The Refusal of Suitors (Noemi Press, 2015). His poetry has appeared in journals such as Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and Bennington Review, and his book reviews and other critical writings can be found in outlets such as Michigan Quarterly Review, AGNI, and the Boston Review. He lives in Seattle where he works at Wave Books. Please visit him at plotsandoaths.com.