Trespass by Thomas Dooley, and They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full by Mark Bibbins
This essay is the third in a series that performs a comparison between two new books of poetry, one book from a veteran of the form, in this case, Mark Bibbins, and the other from a new poet whose collection is about to debut. Bibbins will be paired with the winner selected by Charlie Smith for the National Poetry Series Open Competition, Thomas Dooley. Dooley's collection, Trespass, comes with it an aura of prestige. With this collection he joins a list of celebrated poets who were past winners of the award, including Jon Yau (1982), Marie Howe (1987), Billy Collins (1990), Mark Doty (1992), and David Groff (2001), to name a few. Bibbins's third collection, They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full, comes with its own aura: the book was subject to a fundraising campaign led by its publisher, which sought distribute 400 copies (at no cost) to college students across the country.
NPR even caught hold of the book, noting: "The book's a little crazy, packed with air quotes and brackets, jokes and condemnations, forms that explode across the page. Crazily enough, it's also packed with truth." The last clause seems counter to Bibbins's poetics. Yes, the collection is packed with truth, but the logic behind NPR's premise operates to say that despite its craziness, despite its air quotes, jokes, and condemnations, it still manages to arrive at some form of truth -- as if truth is something normally only arrived at by staying the line and following rules. It is precisely because Bibbins operates crazily, humorously, and politically that he can access moments of truth. His artistry relies on breaking rules, not existing despite them.
Take for example the poem, "Thunderbride," a Fourth of July remix which opens: "My throat is full of sparklers / making me a lighthouse / for a loveship / that can fly / Our mother Monarchy / sweet land paternity / I'll eat their offspring's money / and let you have a bite." The formal devices, which are not crazy, of lose rhyme (fly::bite) and alliteration (lighthouse::loveship), ensure that the center of the poem does indeed hold as he invites formal experimentation. Sound traverses from line to line as the primary conduit. On a more prosaic layer, away from sound in the poetry pyramid of self-actualization, the actual semantic meaning in his word choice carries the poem as well. Bibbins's adaptation of "our country 'tis of thee / sweet land of liberty" is juxtaposed against his reworkings: "Our mother Monarchy / sweet land paternity" is not simply wordplay, but commentary and critique. The poem takes a turn, visually as well as literally, after a page and a half, where a line break on the word "baby" descends into a piercing rattle of: "Tonight we bomb / tonight we blitz / tonight we barrage / tonight we make the greater migration / tonight our fabulous flock shits napalm on the criminal dads." The fireworks come to symbolize something non-celebratory, but illusory, or perhaps even sinister.
Sinister undertones are strung by Dooley as well. Though, while Bibbins finds these machinations running rampant in the airways and the press room, Dooley finds them much closer, in the home and in the family, going so far as to name the street where these moments occur, Ingalls Avenue. Trespass has a clear beginning and ending, that is to say, this is narrative poetry, though with enough mystery and shadows that one doesn't feel that they've read a story, but that they've witnessed something traumatic, uncomforting, lasting, and dark. The book is divided into three parts, three "acts", with an opening poem unattached to any one section. I've called such poems in the past "heart" poems, borrowing from Toi Dericcote's collection Tender, who writes: "Tender is not to be read in a linear fashion. Rather, it is a seven-spoked wheel, with the poem "Tender" as the hub, each "spoke" or subdivision radiating from that center." Dooley's heart poem, "Cherry Tree" introduces three key players in the narrative: the father, the mother, and the off-scene, but still present observer, a poet-child watching adult life beat away at the wide-open world of youth into spaces of ever-encroaching solitude.
Trespass is a book not to be read at random. They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full could be read at random, by which I mean you can open the book at any page, jump in, and not miss necessary context from earlier poems. In this way, Bibbins can be read like a contemporary music album. You can hunt for the single, stumble upon a new song you didn't know you'd like, and then finish listening as you wish, on your way to work, before bed, or at the coffee shop. For Dooley, Trespass needs a reading period less fragmented. It calls for a dedicated space and time to enter the consciousness of our poet. You are introduced to him by way of "Cherry Tree" before you sit down for a three-act play. Allow yourself an intermission, but the tension is real and the body craves resolution. The mystery will fade (and thus the book will fail) if read as contemporary album -- it is a record to be set and heard in full.
We can feel the poet zoom in from the world to the room-as-the-world, a place incredibly narrow and confusing. Dooley writes in a poem, whose title returns later in the collection: "the house of women once girls a house / of kisses this is a house of rooms / a house of small closets and / smaller closets a closet for lemon" and the poem continues in this vein, from breath to shortening breath, offering no punctuation to let you recover, the anxiety building upon each line as the words take us further and further from large to small, from innocence to experience. We're brought into a world of sexuality and violence, and sometimes, sexual violence. In describing gestation, Dooley writes: "[sperm] will spin / and set in that lesbian womb, form / bones, push white elbow and / purple cord into a dark / pixilated frame" and you get the sense that creation is less magical and more violent than described in grade school (certainly, no storks show up in Dooley's poetic). Act I is a tale of creation in various forms; for Trespass, it is how a boy's shame is created through family and how a family is set up to be dissolved. The reader "travels," as Dooley writes in "First Love": "the decade / of my spine, your mouth sudden / on each bone, I turn you over."
In Dooley's first act, we zoom into an interior. In act two, that interior is divided, but instead of the pieces becoming smaller, we encounter the speaker growing, retaking the space taken earlier by lovers and family. He asks, "What hurts / the most? the kept // breath? Geese / cutting the pond? I came / to know[.]" This "coming to know" recurs throughout, as various mysteries are revealed, but not in their entirety. Small glimpses of discovery are offered, and even language is demystified: "[I want to] exit metaphor / altogether, / straw is just straw, / not hair / not blond tin / it's dull and dirty, grass[.]" But this gesture is only a desire. It does not signal the end of a poetic and the entrance of the prosaic. Soon thereafter, he reclaims ownership of metaphor: "here take a universe / darts of light / a pan flute / chirps our ending song / go now to the cedary wield of smooth creatures / of glaborous torsos caprine legs / who am I[.]"
Who am I? A question many poets seek to uncover through the form, not only regarding a mythical and often problematic unified "I," but also regarding the curator of the form itself, the poet/artist "I." Bibbins has the vantage point, or at least the ability to create distance and gain perspective on the poetic self, where Dooley yet cannot. From the poem Confidence, Bibbins writes, "I just make the occasional collage / that falls apart when it rains, // wield my plaid umbrella like a sword, / and charge, exhausted, into the storm." Within these four lines we get the sense that Bibbins sees himself a modernist in the Warholian tradition, collaging with language heard outside and in, sometimes working, sometimes not, but feeling, even knowing or believing, that he's fighting what feels to be the good fight. He carries on the politics of the Factory, happily armed with a "plaid umbrella" when those he critiques often wield swords -- or more directly -- drones.
One answer to that slippery question of Who am I? comes from Bibbins in "The Bell is a Recording," where he writes, "but there is no superhero / with only the superpower / of observation // because that would make / an insufferable superhero." The poet, as an artist, is the ultimate observer, witnessing the sounds humanity walks among and often fails to notice. For Bibbins, this is often the deranged (contradictory, fucked-up) messages from newscasters and political parties. The book opens with the lines, "Before we say anything else I'd like / to point out that this coverage / is favorable to the user. I mean / I'm already a fan so I trust / the instructions[.]" Poetry offers to Bibbins a way to coexist with a world that increasingly seems inauthentic at best, maddening at worst. And for a soul, if you believe we have them, existence can become unsustainable, kept only afloat through bits of humor and momentary jokes, in a world with little reason to laugh. He writes in "Terminal": " -- the night my friend stopped cracking / jokes / we understood he would die -- "
Bibbins cracks jokes but he is also a fighter. He collages sound and is able to remove himself and look upon his body (as it exists in words) and comment protest against the world to which that body belongs. He can handle gestures towards awareness that newer poets can't yet access. While their form and subjects are different (though one might argue the subject -- language -- is the same. Or is language the form? Is language the container or the contents?), both write poetry, that much is obvious, yet one is clearly from a poet who has written more, and one from a poet who has written less. On what grounds can I say this? What devices or reading allows me to claim experience or gesture towards evidence of a prolonged practice? If I were given their collections without their bios, could I still make the claim that Bibbins's work is more mature than Dooley's?
Bibbins, while not a narrative poet, is able to write poems about being a poet. This is, concerning a poem's subject, a call sign of a poet who has been around, as a poet, for a while. Dooley cannot yet say so, or he could, but hasn't yet established the ethos to do so.
Concerns of youth and place, subjects I once wrote about, are off topic to the veteran, or perhaps yielded less than they once did. My favorite poem from Bibbins, my surprising album discovery, the object you find in a collage just as you were about to move onto the next piece, is a poem titled "Almost as Good as What We Destroyed." It is meditative and surprising. It is neither crazy nor out of control. It is humble and crushes you in one sweeping, ending gesture. It differs from the "crazy" poems that experiment and attack the reader with their "mess-ness." You view a modernist A-Z catalogue of words ending with the suffix -ness, making you aware of so many essences of fill-in-the-blank, but also giving you a chance to create your own poetic. Does the poet expect you to read every word? I'm not sure, but working my way through the Hs, I felt like I made a discovery of my own upon finding the procession of "holiness hollowness homelessness" -- it was a found poem (or at least I was given that illusion). As readers we project our own associations onto the collage Bibbins lays out, we pick the meaning from his assembly as he cedes some of his control. Doing so, ceding control yet remaining effective, is a skill of a master poet.
Dooley is a poet who retains his control, though I'm unsure if he would agree. Does the critic have the right to say these things? I leave the discussion to stand on its own; what is offered as synthesis is how they connect. They connect through sound, and as one gestures his hand to be taken, the other shows you where that hand has been. As readers of poetry, we should be able to embrace both, listen to a vinyl from the first song to the last, but also be able to put in earbuds and press "random" on our walk to the subway. Our world, like our sense of self, is variegated, and these are, gratefully, tellingly, two poets who are here to help shape that world in their own ways.
Trespass by Thomas Dooley
They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full by Mark Bibbins
Copper Canyon Press