Standing in Line for the Beast by Jason Bredle
On the evidence of Standing in Line for the Beast, Jason Bredle only really writes one kind of poem: A conversational, even chatty poem, densely packed with the semantic debris of American suburbia, that moves from uproariously funny to affecting. Bredle writes this poem at varying lengths, and about an array of topics, but it is recognizably the same poem. Not the same style or voice -- the same poem. Mercifully, he's remarkably good at it.
William Wordsworth once pledged to stick to "the real language of men" as the most appropriate poetic idiom, and it's fair to identify this as Bredle's goal, as well. But where Wordsworth claimed a connection between this language of men and "the language of the sense," in the perception of nature, Bredle's is a thoroughly strip-malled, mediated, bloggy sort of language -- that is, it is recognizably the language of people of a certain age. There's no contemplative lyricism here. Instead, Standing in Line for the Beast offers chains of association, arranged with a deceptive simplicity that signals attention to craft.
There is probably a psychological argument embedded in the structure of the poems: The speakers' habitual turn from comic quasi-rant to an ostensibly more authentic emotion could be read in several different ways. Perhaps the rants lance traumatic memories, making them easier to bear, or they simply deflect their import. Or, maybe, the speakers chatter away, only to find themselves caught up in an emotion they're not quite prepared to admit. Sometimes, as in "The Classic Story," the speaker keeps his sentences aloft with bravura riffs on contemporary American life, until -- as it were accidentally -- disclosing something apparently more personal. By personal I don't mean "true," just that there's a perceptible shift in register from "boy and girl fall in love after becoming / chemistry lab partners, girl inflates / used condom until it explodes in boy's face" to "boy has affair with different girl in middle / of Mexico, previous girl leaves boy / upon his return and discovery that she'd been / cheating on him for a year." In these little sequences Bredle compresses so much: maturation from first loves to betrayals, the economic syntactical self-protection of "boy has affair" but "she'd been cheating," and much else.
The overall direction of Bredle's approach to everyday speech is comic. He can be funny just imitating everyday conversation:
What I want to know is who's the idiot
who said no when Michael Ondaatje asked
if there was an echo in the room during his reading,
the idiot who said we could hear him just fine,
because all I heard was a series of mumbles
and a lot of s sounds which for some reason
made the audience laugh every now
It's slightly ridiculous to observe that a passage commenting on sound is itself full of sonic play, but the play of o and s sounds here is really quite funny, elevating the casual idiom. He can be funny with a simple conceit, such as the poem about a guy named Anarchy. He can be funny through sheer persistence, as when "It begins" some thirty times, before "never ending." But he can also be funny by writing poems that you wish would be animated for YouTube:
If you ever eat too many enchiladas
don't go over to your ex-girlfriend's apartment
immediately afterwards, rip off your pants
and have sex with her, because unbelievable
cramps will be the least of your problems.
. . .
. . . As will be
the time the Ford twins stole your pants and shirt
out of your gym locker and wore them to school
the next day, the night two years ago you spent
with your crotch up to a public restroom dryer
in a vain attempt to dry yourself off as a five
year old boy made fun of you
after she spilled a tall glass of ice cold
Coca-Cola in your lap.
Bredle's comedy arises from a surreal capacity to shift from image to associated image, suppressing anything that might look like context or explanation. He mocks those "who actually believe the stuff that happens / is linked nicely together with guitar interludes / like the comedy bits on a Bill Hicks album." By refusing to narrate his life -- that is, by refusing to sort his experiences into a coherent story, one with a point or purpose -- Bredle is able both to mine this material freely and to distance himself from his kaleidoscopically invented scenarios.
Winner of the 2006 New Issues prize, chosen by Barbara Hamby, Standing in Line for the Beast is a promising book, at times dazzlingly sharp and funny. A partial consequence, though, of the poems' similarity is that they are almost infinitely more appealing in small doses. Taken as a whole, the poems tend to blur together a bit, although as I read each one I was almost unfailingly interested. Watch out for the enchiladas.
Standing in Line for the Beast: Poems by Jason Bredle
New Issues Poetry & Prose