Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated by Carson Cistulli
It's not enough to call Carson Cistulli's debut book of poems, Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated, surreal. These wild poems, in nearly equal parts hilarious and bratty, read as though Rimbaud, the Boston Sports Guy, a drunken Slovene, and the director of advertising for a struggling talk-radio station all sat down for a game of exquisite corpse. Compounding the strangeness is that his cover photo resembles the addict Johnny (played by Leo Fitzpatrick) from HBO's The Wire -- that is, if Johnny were goggled up to play racquetball. For all that, Cistulli is a canny observer of contemporary American culture, and, though it is slightly strange to say so, the poems are rather charming.
Cistulli's poems are quite funny. So funny, in fact, that it is sometimes hard to know whether something is a poem or a joke. Sometimes, the thing in question is both, as, for instance, "from The Contemplative's Joke Book": "Q. Where does a prostitute eat her meals? / A. In a William T. Vollman novel, is a good answer." Even his more conventional poems sound like jokes:
My hometown can beat up your hometown.
My god is crunker than your god.
I didn't necessarily embrace this poverty.
It was more like, I waved to it from across the street.
As even these brief examples show, Cistulli's basic approach is to cut up the nonsense chatter of everyday speech, creating an oddly skewed, though engaging, perspective on the mediaverse. Sometimes, the effects are pretty interesting; other times, they devolve pretty quickly into the merely irritating: "Invective," for example, is sheer poetic smack-talk: "You should feel good, actually: / your poems have a practical use-- / . . . / ...maybe I'd wipe my ass with them, too, / if they weren't already so full of shit!" At moments like these, it's possible to wish Cistulli were at least on nodding terms with the concept of restraint.
Indeed, considered as an object and not a book of poems, Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated can be a bit wearying. The cataloging-in-publication page includes jokes such as, "This book was made possible by the Beyonces and Lucy Lius of the Western Canon," and, as an acknowledgement, "These poems have previously appeared -- written in the hearts of men!" After the book's final poem, there is "A Note on the Type," which runs as follows: "The editors understand that, given the font's diminutive size, it may cause the eye some fatigue. This is no accident. Rather, it is a safety measure to prevent the reader from an excess of Cistulli's poems, which, in that case, would cause fatigue of the heart." If Marx called for a ruthless criticism of everything, Cistulli offers up a constant poking or winking at all aspects of poetry publication whatever. From soup to nuts, Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated sets out to tweak the concept of "the first book of poems," and, while few of the jokes are unfunny on their own, taken as a whole they start to pall.
One of the book's strongest features is its implicit commentary on American masculinity, especially in its adolescent and 20-something variants. Cistulli's poems are sports-besotted, not with the usual lyrical extolling of, say, the slow time of baseball, or the jazzy flow of basketball, but, rather, with the media- and stats-filtered consciousness of the fan and the player. "Postgame Comments by Celtics' Captain Paul Pierce as an Approach to the Creative Process" takes as its text an infamous comment by the Boston superstar wherein he compared basketball to war at a time when U.S. troops were fighting overseas. Cistulli splices in "poetry" for "basketball," with good effect: "people don't understand / the psychology of the poetry / I was just trying to / get my poetry fired up." He also writes a series of prose poems for Jiri Welsch, an obscure NBA player, and has other poems that draw their key images from baseball, soccer, video games, and other activities of the 20-something male (the Welsch poem has my current favorite Matthew Arnold allusion: "After that, I read an account of someone's normal day, except it's written in Middle English. In it, some rather intelligent armies clash by night: no you are, Matthew Arnold!"). What's striking about these moments is that they point up the way these activities structure the conversation of young men without being condescending about it. In effect, they treat sports, including fantasy sports and video games, as the natural stuff of poetry, which seems pretty reasonable.
Although Cistulli's poems are often lavishly attentive to form, their insistently combinatory method tends to resist close reading. Instead, what we get is a kind of poetic experiment: to what extent can contemporary American discourse -- from the trite ("my fave pen"), to the perhaps offensive ("Once more, Rimbaud and I at the coffee shop. I rape the barista, much to her enjoyment"), to the quietly lyrical ("wait[ing] for time / like a sharply hit groundball") to the silly ("I remember when they opened the Gaza Strip Club") -- be recuperated for poetry? That sometimes the poems work well, and other times less well, is less a criticism than an attempt to observe the provocative experiment honestly. Cistulli claims somewhere that he, "read[s] a book / not to find its meaning, but to find my / happiness." Readers who operate on a similar principle will likely find at least some happiness in Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated.
Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated by Carson Cistulli