Thursday, April 19, 2012

from the pages of cant

T U R N I N G  I T  O V E R,  C O N S I D E R I N G,  L I K E  A  M A D M A N  
N A T E  S L A W S O N  P U T  F O R T H  A  B O O K

                On Nate Slawson’s Panic Attack, USA
                                (YesYes Books, 2011)

By B.J. Love

We’ve all seen it. At least I think we all have. That video of John Berryman, drunkenly reiterating points with his hands his poems have already made. He’s reading one of his “Dream Songs,” and even though there is sadness in seeing someone readily letting go to this extent, this is where John Berryman has always made the most sense to me. Where his poems shine with a ferocious carelessness that fills them with meaning.

It’s mesmerizing to watch. To witness intention mingling so well with disorder. John Berryman is out of control, and it’s on purpose, and we can’t stop watching. We can’t stop because we are scared. Scared of a man who has done this to himself both physically and as Henry in the poems. John Berryman, here, is every scary thing you’ve ever shared space with. He’s horrible. He’s thrilling. He’s excruciating. He’s dangerous, and when he’s done, you are relieved and saddened and wanting more.

Berryman said once that he had no interest in being like W.B. Yeats, he simply wanted to be Yeats. And after reading Nate Slawson’s new collection, Panic Attack, U.S.A., it’s hard to argue that Slawson couldn’t give two shits about being influenced by Berryman; his book is a portrait of a man being John Berryman.
                In the shower I press my thumb
                into my throat & think about
                ambulance sirens how birdsong
                they is how bodies are gasoline…

These poems, like the “Dream Songs,” are so filled with fears that they become fearful themselves. Yes, the imagery is scary, but what is even more frightening is being thrust into the role of the you and thus becoming the object of Slawson’s I. I mean this: though it is beautiful to be this in love with anyone, this speaker’s obsession with his muse is menacing.

                I beg you because it feels
                so good begging you &
                I wanna beg forever if
                that’s what’s gonna get me
                buried inside the buttons
                behind your buttons.

What we are reading is an exercise in obsession, which is relatively insignificant as far as a book of poems goes. However, it’s the intensity Slawson is able to sustain that makes his obsessions noteworthy. Where a lesser poet would only re-imagine the obsession and watch it diminish with every iteration, Slawson uses each poem to re-emphasize it, creating that Berryman-esque mania that is simultaneously appealing and appalling.

                Your face is the sun.
                The sun is your face.
                It’s killing me.

Berryman often played with dialect and disjointed phrasing to underscore for us the teetering of a speaker between levels of sanity. Amongst the overtly heightened desire fueling these poems, we see Slawson employ similar tactics (in addition to an aversion to certain punctuations), but for slightly different effects. His utterances make him sound like a mad flibbertigibbet and we are merely swimming up his stream of consciousness. It works pretty well. There is a fury to the pace of the poems that is constricting to the reader in how caught up in it we are, but an expanse of possibility for the speaker. Here, Slawson gets away with everything.
                …even though it’s January &
                colder than Leningrad I think
                this is where I write you
                something about your ass
                it is fantastic I’ll meet you
                behind the Pizza Hut…

Without the disruption of correctness, without any way out, really, Slawson does not allow for our exit. These poems were written without regard for the author or for his audience, and I admire Slawson for it. Right or wrong, it leads to a necessity in the poems (to their existence, to your reading of them) that feels dangerous, but also feels extremely beautiful, even when it’s bleeding all over you blue blue dress.

Panic Attack, U.S.A. is just a book, but it’s hard not to feel a little concerned for it, and it’s in that concern that we realize Nate Slawson’s genius. He hasn’t written a collection of poems, he has built a person that we relate to, that we feel sorry for, that we miss, that we hate, and that we love. A person that, in this way, reminds of us of other people. A person that we begin to feel a little jealous of.

That said, exhaustion begins to creep in when too many poems are read in succession. The devices at work are exposed too readily in large chunks, and it becomes easy to simplify the poems into patterns. But you would be doing yourself a disservice not reading this book. So my advice? Read these poems in 15-minute intervals. Allow yourself to get caught up in the imagery, the language, the attitude, and then walk away for a day or two. Panic Attack, U.S.A. is that dude who becomes your best friend only after you stop seeing each other so regularly.

                All my energy is so fucking religious.
                I want to be a holiday, but I’m running out of happy.
                Let’s be water park employees.
                You can call me sentimental. I will call you purpose.

Berryman, I think, sums it up best, “Love her he doesn’t but the thought he puts/ into that young woman/ would launch a national product.” And though it is a product of despair, of longing, in this day and age, it is as fitting an example of our national product as we can have.

I mean, besides You Tube.


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