Who says contemporary poetry is too difficult, too obscure? In his new collection, x, published earlier this year by McSweeney’s, Dan Chelotti offers up verse in equal measures heartfelt and wry, almost always expressed in admirably straightforward language. Strange moods and incongruencies haunt these poems. Although each idea is simply expressed, the difficulty comes when you try to unpack their juxtaposition and arrangement, to make sense of how each new line complicates everything that has come before.
I always think
about heaven when I
am at the dump.
The birds that are
supposed to travel
the land of the living
and the dead really
like the dump.
(from “A Perfectly Good Ottoman”)
These poems are fond of art and hot dogs. IKEA is referenced often. The speaker expresses his admiration for King Lear, Spencer, and Apollinaire, but seems uncomfortable fitting such literature into his everyday life, a life that is largely represented by the consumption of hastily prepared food and the nervous enjoyment of solitary walks. The poem “Hell,” for instance, ends its ruminations on death with the remark:
This is what I did this morning
a breakfast sandwich in hand.
x feels clever, obviously, and sometimes too clever by half, which then becomes the subject of the poems, the isolation and existential confusion that such cleverness brings. I have all this complex mental machinery. What is it for? How do I meaningfully connect the literature of the past, and the power of my free-dreaming imagination, with the sad smallness of my actually lived life?
Irony does a lot of work in this book. Maybe the line about the sandwich suggests that the speaker knows how unmeaningful his meditations on death are, or that he considers them more meaningful than his quotidian lived experience, or that he notes the discrepancy in plain amusement. It’s hard to say. The irony reveals only that something is being concealed—what that something is, the reader has to guess for herself.
In the poems I liked most in the collection, Chelotti makes that irony work very well indeed. In his best moments, the irony seems to point at something the reader can almost see, a feeling the reader can understand without being able to name. The poetic emotion seems not obscured by the elliptical method of conveying it, but rather compressed and focused. In “Lion,” for instance, we meet a tiny lion that is on one level puny and absurd—
When I draw close
it roars like hell,
postures to nibble my finger.
I don’t understand what it’s doing in my world
of ketchup smeared paper plates…
—but which, on another level, appears the expression of some unnamed but tremendous need: “while terribly / insufficient, it will take / on whatever darkness may come.”
My wider question about x, however, and contemporary poetry in general, is how sustainable such irony will turn out to be. Over and over, Chelotti appears to be stating two contradictory theses:
1. My life is trivial and thus unworthy of poetry.
2. My thoughts and feelings are the only possible subject of poetry.
This contradiction, of course, gives x considerable power. Yet one senses, reading these poems, the shadow of a poetry perhaps not yet born, one that will come after that tension pops. If we insist ever more urgently that human life is trivial, will there come a point when poetry abandons it as a subject?
Northrop Frye believed that literature developed via a sequence of descending phases. He placed irony at the end of this cycle, the fifth and final phase. According to Frye, writers began by writing about gods, then they wrote about heroes, then about better than average people, then about people on the same level as ourselves, and then, finally, about people worse than ourselves. The ironic phase, therefore, is where we are today, having descended from Homer to Kafka. In this last phase, however, Frye claimed to see the stirrings of a new cycle, of a return to the ancient literature of myth. Irony, therefore, is an end and a beginning, a peak and a nadir: it is the most human literature of all, because it seeks to portray life as it really is, but it is also the least human, pointing as it does at the non-human literature soon to come.
I don’t want to imply that Chelotti’s irony is representative of all contemporary poetry. However, speaking of my own area, fiction, I wonder if we can see a similar exhaustion of the human subject in certain contemporary American novels. In those long and expertly detailed novels about upper-middle class Americans which have become so highly regarded of late, one finds events and characters and reflections, an abundance of historical and cultural specifics, but only rarely something that resembles a traditional plot. The certainties of an old school novel like Great Expectations or Emma seems unwelcome to these contemporary writers, as if they have come to doubt that human life really deserves such tightly orchestrated meanings, that it can support any kind of considered and poised resolution.
Perhaps the poetry of the future will concern itself not with people but with the superhuman, with forces and entities and powers. Perhaps poets will no longer write about shopping in Walmart, but about Walmart itself, or about the energies that animate Walmart, the conditions that give it strength. Perhaps in the poetry of a generation or two, our everyday human life will be reduced, as it is in Homer, to the status of an extended and eloquent simile, to something poignant and secondary.