February 2005

Joey Rubin


Buffalo Head Solos by Tim Seibles

If Frank O'Hara's meandering monologues were meant to capture the performative design of Abstract Expressionism and Allen Ginsberg's forceful riffing was meant to mimic the jazz stylings of Charlie Parker, then the back-bending, image-splicing, lyrical narratives in Tim Seibles's sixth collection of poetry Buffalo Head Solos should invoke the fast-flipping frames of Hannah-Barbara animation. Seibles's cartoon imagery, and cartoonish muscling of language, however, are not just trying to make us laugh. Which is to say, Seibles is playful -- but he's not kidding around.

In the prefatory statement, "An Open Letter," Seibles decries the "hobbled poetry" that perpetuates the marginal role of the medium, and in its place invokes a poetry of "ravishing hunger." "Why not [write] a sublimely reckless poetry," he asks us, "when the ascendant social order permits nearly every type of corruption and related hypocrisy?" Seibles is blunt: He has a problem with "the American Predicament" and he means his poetry to confront, discuss and embody this dilemma: "Writing poems in SUV-America can feel like fiddling amidst catastrophe, but if one must fiddle shouldn't one play that thing till it smokes?"

Such a call-to-arms may seem odd at first, considering that in his fourth collection of verse Hurdy-Gurdy (Cleveland State University, 1992) Seibles penned a pair of love letters between Natasha and Boris (with "apologies to Bullwinkle and Rocky") and that his fifth collection Hammerlock (Cleveland State University, 1999) included the poem "What Bugs Bunny Said to Red Riding Hood" and a series of poems in the voices of the Coyote and his "meep meep-ing" Road-Runner rival. These poems, however, like the strongest in his new collection, navigate the terrain of American pop culture in order to ponder the state of the American psyche. Natasha's emotions are candidly political; Bugs Bunny talks frankly about race; the Road-Runner desperately bemoans a spiritual exhaustion endemic in the contemporary world:

it seems like, secretly, there's a
big joke being played,

and you're part of what
someone else is laughing at -- only

you can't prove it, so you
keep sweating and believing in

your career...

(from "Hammerlock")

Seibles invokes cartoon characters to sneak inside his reader's pop-cultured head. But just getting in isn't his goal. Once he's inside, once we're laughing along, once we're comfortable with Bugs or Boris or talking mosquitoes, that's when another Seibles butts in.

Buffalo Head Solos is organized into four sections. Each begins with a poem entitled "Ambition," narrated by a cow, a mosquito, a primate and a virus, respectively. Tonally, every "Ambition" is rendered equally true-to-life, capturing the voice of an underdog or an outcast, each in his own way longing for strength, validity and power. They are funny (you can't help but laugh when the mosquito exclaims: "What? You think we ain't/ got feelings?!"), but these poems are not jokes. Yet what is most striking, and most impressive, is the language that follows these ambitious openers.

It is in the poems where Seibles speaks with a "human" voice that he is most like an animator. With language alone, his poems manage to captivate the imagination in much the same way an animator captivates the eye:

Someone ties two blue balloons to your eyelids:

Rise and shine! The new sun
smears the dark like a paw: Tuesday –

(from "Christmas 2001")

With images like these, twisting the impossible into the surreal, Seibles confronts the "blood, bone, and soul in the rawest, most honest and electric way." His language is fresh, his images are exciting -- he writes so that readers numbed by special effects and weary of staid poetry alike will be pleased, stimulated and engaged. In "Welcome Home," a parable in which all the world's white people have left for the moon, he uses images of sizzling soup and sequestered left-overs to discuss a world without racial hate:

For without White Supremacy, and its
soul-eating whispers, the old rage
that had simmered everywhere
like crocodile soup
was covered with foil and stuffed in the fridge.

Because the image is odd, it is also provocative; because it is so incongruous, it is quite effective. Racial hate, he tells us, can be put in the past just as easily as last-night's leftovers can be shoved into the refrigerator. In this way, Seibles's language itself is animated; his images, packing a rhetorical ACME punch, are moving.

Seibles set himself a difficult task in Buffalo Head Solos -- to challenge the status quo while appealing to the casual reader -- and like the bow scratching across the fiddle's strings or the Road-Runner speeding off into the distance, his poetry smokes.

Buffalo Head Solos by Tim Seibles
Cleveland State Univ Poetry Center
ISBN: 1880834634
152 Pages