December 2012

Courtney Birst


Family System by Jack Christian

The first few poems in Family System did nothing for me, I read them but highlighted no lines, paused over no words. That finally changed when I read "A Tree." I didn't like the poem completely -- I didn't understand the meaning or what it was trying to describe to the reader, but there were a few lines that were compelling: "I was shaking my fist at the God of trash-talk," followed later by "I said a prayer for anyone who never came back. I said a prayer to the God who answers back. I said one for you if you chased your Gods away." Unfortunately the next poem, titled "Marie," was little more than the listing of names that does nothing but confuse the reader to the point where I began to skim this long poem -- two and a half pages -- to get to the end. I don't feel guilty for doing this; I feel I've missed nothing.

In "Gladetown Cemetery" it felt like most of the poem was filler, extra words put on paper to ensure more black than white on the page. I became an archeologist, digging for something worthwhile. I was pleased when I find these lines: "I saw a ghost in there. I almost expected to. It was two feet tall and quiet. It went between the graves. It had a kind of business. I don't know what it was." And then "It started to disappear to places. It wanted out of there. That's what was coming through to me. This was at dusk. Exactly dusk. The ghost shrank with the darkness."

"I cinch our nights closer to us," is the only line I love from "I Am Yours." The rest of the poem is filled with strange lines such as "Nets cast because they exist and we are where we walk, strong as cans, extolled by night." I'm so confused by the line "strong as cans" that the entire poem is lost on me.

It's not until I get to "A Paradox" on page twenty-three where I can almost say I like a poem in its entirety. I'm not sure I completely understand the poem, but perhaps I don't have to in order to enjoy it. That I am almost saying I like it should speak volumes, after all, shouldn't a reader know if she likes a poem? Yet I cannot commit to liking the poem in its completeness but I feel this is the closest I've gotten in this book. The first lines of the poem are good: "Although there aren't rules you are against them. You bring curfew and we break it." And later, "You were the song you hummed."

Another poem I don't quite get but I like enough of it is "More Like a Factory." It reads well and has some interesting lines: "He drank like his mother. It took her six nips to fly, eight years to drive stick shift. What she wanted most was to be good-for-nothing. She sat you down and told you so." A couple of stanzas later in the poem another set of good lines: "She was insistent. She was a chant. Her words came down through penny wire. Her husband said her star petered out. It wasn't like a bomb went off. She was never quite his. She wasn't exactly anybody. He couldn't remember if he wanted her or not."

"Reporter" immediately follows. It begins sort of ho-hum, but the last stanza is what really makes the poem: "The memory of them recurs. Makes me drive too fast and sing too loud and eat their music, which isn't anything at all -- an inward yawp that sounds only for those, like me, who fled with their windows wide, who prickled in its irregular breeze. But when it hits, I hear the question phrased thusly: Do I want to save the changes?"

"Over mud, I walked the plank toward God who got up again recently, and I rose early to meet him. Check out this dream: There was Jesus, only he was just that long-haired kid who lives down the street and is always smoking cigarettes beside my porch and it was me who woke him up who bailed him out, because his alarm had been going off for hours. I was pretty nice. I said, 'Hey, Dude. Get up, it's Easter.'" So is the compelling beginning of "Let's Collaborate." Unfortunately the poem then loses focus, or the reader loses the poem's intended focus, and the rest of the poem is just words arranged into meaningless sentences. Not all is lost though as the poem ends with a lovely line: "We could say, 'Fuck it,' or we could gather the proof necessary to believe in everything no one can see."

The poem "Our Air is More a Branch" does the same thing -- starts with a few good lines but then loses focus and loses the reader: "I know if we sit together long enough I'm going to put my arm around you. We're going to lose time. We'll be surprised, later, when the day has changed, than it was order and now is not, and we were going a great distance but it was always just another rise on the vague path that follows the ridge." Unfortunately there is no good finishing line to end the poem, I found it confusing and disjointed from the rest of the poem: "The evening is after that. There's a baseball game. There's a pitch in baseball that is fast as hell, and is more notable for being completely accurate, and actually has no velocity. With a pitch like that, it's true, there are a million different things to think for a second to hurry after, but don't." Even after several readings I'm not sure how the beginning of the poem, which talks about being with someone, gets to the end of the poem, which talks about a pitch in baseball. Surely there's a transition in there, surely the baseball pitch is a metaphor for something. Unfortunately I wasn't able to decipher either.

"Another Eden," the second to last poem in this collection, repeats the history of so many poems before it -- the beginning is wonderful, but then it falls apart and leaves the reader wondering if two people authored the poem: "Serendipity, we had it. We weren't looking and there it was. The river snuck up on us. The river was always paddling. We were glad to see each other, so glad we lost the canoe. That didn't make a bit of difference to us because we were making love."

Ultimately this book left me deeply unsatisfied. There was one poem I could say I liked in its entirety ("A Paradox") -- maybe. Some poems contained a few lines I liked, but when flipping through the entire book I find more pages than not are blank of my notes. No underlined stanzas, no stars beside lines that I found especially wonderful. I finished the book and wondered if I'd just read poetry.

Family System by Jack Christian
Center for Literary Publishing
ISBN: 978-1885635273
57 pages