Tuesday, May 29, 2007

you are a little bit happier than i am by Tao Lin

Action Books, 2006

Reviewed by Mike Young

Thanks to a recent book by a Princeton philosophy professor, we can now feel swell about incorporating one of our best words into critical dialogue: bullshit. In Tao Lin's first book of poems, you are a little bit happier than i am, Lin attempts to dismantle the bullshit of self-deception.

But dismantle seems like a tame word. Really, this book drops a calm, neutral-faced sledgehammer asteroid on many of lyric poetry's familiar gestures: assured speakers, linguistic sweetening, and any attempt to convince the reader of the world's latent morality, the wise old sea coddling the boat. Not that Lin isn't looking. He just doesn't want to lie. In "book reviewers always praise books as ‘life-affirming’ because the more humans there are on earth the better," Lin describes a video of a bull's death. The reader watches along, winces, ready for the poet to sing us all out of our guilt. And here comes the end:

      and now the bullfighter is cutting off the bull's ears
      from behind, and the bull is on the ground, and shivering
      as if it were cold, and just wanted a blanket, and a bed
      and i deleted this line
      and i deleted this line, too, in revisions
      and i deleted this line that was talking about god
      and this line was also talking about god and it said something about the
      universe and i deleted it
      and this line kept talking about semantics and i deleted it

Wait, what happened? What happened to rhetoric that pats our head and "lets us off the hook"? This spirit of bullshit omission—revising not just lines of poetry but also fuzzy-headed thinking—gives these poems a tone of totalitarian sincerity. Which is scary, sure, and a little annoying. As Lin puts it in the long prose poem "i Am 'i Don't Know What i Am' And You Are Afraid Of Me And So Am i": "I am so afraid of myself that my afraidness scares you more than it scares me."

Speaking of philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas sometimes floats through these poems (see: "i am 'you' to you"), Lin reminding us that we can't quite get from Self to You. In his poem "in manhattan on 29th street across the avenue then over the railing there is a little beach," Lin speaks to his friend: "you had cancer or something so they excised your flesh / there were other problems with your lymph nodes." This isn't immature or sloppy language; this is a true transcription of interminable doubt, of sitting on a plastic stool next to a hospital bed and trying to attach the name of the disease to the shaky hands in front of you, pretending with your own hands and knowing, really, that you aren't even close. Yet Lin is almost sure, like us, that a real knowledge of love would still the terror of seeing and being an Other: "There should be something about you / in this poem. But // there is just me, being stupid."

That takes care of about 3/4 of these poems. Thankfully, even with the saucer-eyed, frightened moose philosophy, Lin is still alive. And that means he is finding some way to reckon. This reckoning arrives via somersaults of wit and imagination that recall the Kenneths Patchen and Koch, giddy with caffeine. Which means: tangerines, elves, laundry machines sending emails, hamsters assembling outside Tokyo, bears "climbing buildings and falling off and falling on baby carriages and old women," genies, secret passageways, ninjas, and beach balls. Why is this not bullshit? Because if the universe is really so cruel and indifferent, we can retaliate by replacing "bullshit" with "talking shit." And Lin talks shit about the "absurd" with the pure and brilliant relish of the best escapist, euphoric now and then to be alone in his head.

To explain this blend of murk and mirth is pretty much impossible. That blend is the book, its identity and strength. On one hand, yes, Lin favors flat and accurate articulation of feeling over language play: one of his favorite phrases and things to think about is the "side of your face," which with every repetition becomes less clunky and scientific, until finally defamiliarizing and reigniting the whole idea of "beauty." But Lin doesn't need to dazzle to entertain. To dazzle, anyway, is to blind. Lin would rather return the reader to the clarity of silliness. Tao Lin is not a robot. Several poems addressed to particular people—old friends who work at Circuit City, who are stuck in smalltown Florida—are so hot with empathy that they stir you dizzy and drained, in the way of that favorite sad song over and over, that way of feeling distant but okay.

In this book, Lin doesn't really feel okay. Sometimes he gets close, but most of the time he recognizes that he is, in the parlance of all annoyingly accurate punks, "fucked." Yet after their monotone bleakness, Lin's poems deliver the indifferent universe and the bullshit of rhetoric a shit-faced grin, polite and giving enough to hope that the reader ends up okay. We are with Lin the whole time, in a "yes, oh wow, I hope no one's looking, I've been there" sort of way, especially with him in bed, at 4:30 am, in his poem "4:30 AM:"

      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially
      i am fucked existentially

And so on for a page and a half, the blink and click of it all, until, finally:

      thank you for reading my poem

I am probably a little bit happier than Tao Lin, but I am glad his poems are here to call me on my bullshit, to make me think about the rhetoric of my happiness, and to give me—just before running away—a nervous high-five.


Tao Lin (b. 1983) is the author of a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a story-collection, Bed, (Melville House, 2007). Tao's blog is Reader of Depressing Books.


Mike Young co-edits NOÖ Journal , a free literary/political magazine. His own fiction and poetry have appeared in Juked, elimae, MiPOesias, BlazeVOX, Pindeldyboz, and elsewhere. Visit him at "Dragonfly on a Dog Chain."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Black Box by Erin Belieu

Copper Canyon Press, 2006

Reviewed by Rya Pagliughi

Erin Belieu’s newest book, Black Box, is a hurricane of pent-up anger, frustration, and sadness, but also a celebration of all things disastrous, wrong, or messy. Belieu works with raw, unfettered emotion, never allowing it to overwhelm or become maudlin. Her wry, insightful voice is a controlled tempest: turbulent, unapologetic, funny, and eminently readable. The pieces don’t head toward the morose or chaotic because the perspective is always colloquial, sardonic, approachable, and slightly vulnerable. One example is the poem “I Heart Your Dog’s Head,” where the speaker announces that, “I hate football / in a hyperbolic and clinically revealing way, / but I hate Bill Parcells more, / because he is the illuminated manuscript / of cruel, successful men, those with the slitty eyes of ancient reptiles, / who wear their smugness like a tight white turtleneck / and revel in their lack of empathy / for any living thing.” These lines function as a microcosm of the manuscript; they are thick with emotion, revealing, and funny. The opinionated speaker is never gagged, but rather allowed full reign, letting the reader ride shot-gun through the whirling text.

Broken into four sections, the book is compact and compressed, both in terms of concept and composition. It bears mentioning that the long poem, “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral” is one entire section of the book. Whereas the preceding two sections are collections of individual poems, Belieu makes a statement about the subject matter and the formal experimentations with this dynamic long poem. The fourth and final section of the book is one piece, “At Last,” that is neither as formally experimental as section three nor as conservative at section one; this hybrid strategy works well as the culmination of the text. It is a clean ending that brings the fervor of the book to an unsettling, but peaceful close.

In section one of Black Box, the poem “Last Trip to the Island,” the speaker addresses an unidentified second person. Belieu takes the changeable nature of the ocean and relates it in a curving way to the relationship taking place. She addresses this second person, telling them that, “[u]nlike your ocean, / there’s nothing sneaky about a field. I like their / ugly-girl frankness. I like that, sitting in the dirt, // I can hear what’s coming between the stalks”. The possession of “your ocean,” by default makes the field belong to the speaker. The dichotomies of your/mine and man/woman seem to reappear throughout the text. Belieu subtly personifies these elements and gives the masculine, the oceanic, the addressee, a menacing feeling. Likewise, the recurrence of apertures in the manuscript seems as ominous as the open grave that later appears. Belieu’s speaker often cites “openedmouthed”, “lips parted”, and “holes”. These fissures seem to speak to the splintered self in the wake of marital infidelity, which is clearly a central axis of the collection. Belieu’s dry humor and simple language lend a sense of immediacy to the text, and diffuses a subject matter ripe for sentimentality. In section four of the long poem, “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral,” Belieu’s cynical, vulnerable, and snarky speaker states that, “the truth doesn’t win, but it makes an appearance, / though it’s a foreign cavalry famous for bad timing and / half-assed horsemanship”. The language here isn’t elevated, academic, or difficult. Instead of feeling pedantic, these lines seem more like a maxim because of the colloquial speech and a feeling of general truth about them. The straightforwardness of these lines is what makes the poem successful--they are naked and honest, brave and smart-mouthed. Section seven of the same poem is a direct address to the lover who has recently died. At the funeral the speaker tells him,

          I was never your Intended,
          never meant to be the official widow
          like that plain, chinless girl I refused to recognize
          or comprehend.

          But the plain ones are patient, aren’t they?

          I’ll admit she earned her orchestra seats
          at this burial the old-fashioned way.


          But later, once the ladies go,
          I’ll climb down to you again.

          I’ll come to you in that dirty box
          where we’ve already slept for years,
          keeping our silent house
          under the avalanche of flowers.

It is the juxtaposition of the silence of the affair with the avalanche of flowers that makes this the most compelling of the sections. The speaker doesn’t apologize for the affair, doesn’t feel sorry for the wife, only feels sorry for the type of woman the wife is. It is in this section that Belieu most effectively uses spare language to make a complex point. In the situation of this poem, just as in life, no one is entirely faultless and no one is entirely at fault.

Belieu’s work is richly textured, formally varied, and filled with non-sentimental emotion. She handles the language well, imbuing it with strength, vulnerability, and power. Black Box is a book one can’t put down without finishing, and will come back to time and time again. Belieu uses brutal honesty to turn a series of painful experiences into a beautiful collection. Black Box is a dark indulgence, it is offensive and endearing, brash and vulnerable; it is a book with guts, heart, and a wry smile throughout.


Erin Belieu was born and raised in Nebraska and educated at the University of Nebraska, The Ohio State University, and Boston University. A former editor at AGNI, she currently serves as a contributing editor to The Kenyon Review. She has taught at Washington University, Boston University, Kenyon College, and currently teaches at Ohio University. Her book Infanta was chosen for the 1994 National Poetry Series.


Rya Pagliughi grew up on Long Island, NY. She received her Bachelor's in English Literature & Creative Writing from Binghamton University and recently finished her Master's in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She currently lives in Boulder Colorado.