A Not-Very-Objective Review
by Raul Clement
Recently, poet Jeff Laughlin sent me a copy of his first collection, Drinking with British Architects. This is a chapbook of less than 50 pages that went through a press run of 100 copies and is now sold out. I would guess that of those 100 copies, 90 of them went to friends or people at the small reading held for its release. To put that in perspective, more people will probably read this blog post than Laughlin’s collection.
And yet it is good. A full disclosure forces me to admit that Laughlin is a friend of mine, and that he offered to send me the book, free of charge, over drinks. So perhaps I wanted to like it; and yet I think, objectively speaking, that it is livelier than most poetry I read in major journals and that the fact that it was released so modestly is a testament to how hard it is to make it in this business, how much toil and sheer luck it takes, and how the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This is especially true for first collections. Resumes are, of course, a self-powered engine: the more impressive your resume looks, the more likely a journal or small press is to seriously consider your work. Many of these presses are struggling to stay afloat and they probably shouldn’t be faulted for preferring an author with a track record. It does seem a little small-minded when you consider the miniscule difference in sales we are talking about here – does one previous publication in the Black Warrior Review bring with it a rabid cult following? – and yet when you are treading water, you will cling to even the smallest piece of driftwood. As someone who has seen the editorial side of this business, I understand and sympathize with this even while it saddens me.
But let’s look at the collection. The title sounds like a Decemberists song, and indeed, much of the work seems influenced by the new literary side of indie rock. Colin Meloy, singer of the Decemberists, is a graduate of the MFA program at The University of Montana; conversely, Jeff Laughlin was (until his move back to North Carolina from New York) the singer of an acoustic, ballad-based group known as Beards. Many of his poems have a sung quality, aware of their rhythm and canny in their use of repetition, and the overall attitude is one of romantic, drunken Tom Waitsism. This is particularly evident in the “women” poems, which apparently were supposed to be part of their own chapbook, but which the publisher insisted Laughlin include – rightly, I might add. The first is called “The Women I Know” and every stanza begins with that phrase. It is a critique of the pursuit of an empty, surface-type of pleasure at the expense of a deeper happiness:
The women I know crack their
clavicles if only to stick out their
This perfectly conveys the desperate need these women have to be thought of as sexual beings. Another line struck me as entirely accurate to a recent experience I had had with a young woman whose chief aim seemed to be worshipped by every man around her. That he had outed my interior life so accurately bespeaks the quality of the work.
The women I know go about their
pleasure the same way: without
love and continuously.
As you can see here, Laughlin privileges the strong opening word rather than the clever line break. Nouns like “clavicles” and “chest” get initial weight, not the last word. Lines don’t end so much as flow into each other. And here at least, he privileges abstraction over the concrete image – a preference that, as much as the extravagantly sentimental attitude, lends to the quality I’ve already identified as coming from the indie rock lyrical tradition.
But Laughlin is too skilled in other ways to be dismissed as a rock musician turned poet. The collection is united by several systems of images and titles that give it a formal quality its free verse lacks. There is an obsession with body parts – particularly the poet’s own broken and damaged parts. This is from “The Critic’s Worry,” one of a series.
There were grease marks along my arms—
Their length took me off guard.
I scrubbed until capillaries broke,
But my blood was not as thick as the car’s.
This stanza shows that Laughlin has the ability to paint a specific scene using concrete images. It also shows that he is not insensitive to the charms of formalism. Not only does he end every line on a strong monosyllable, but there is a definite respect for rhyme hinted at it in “arms”/”guard”/”cars.” Here are more broken body parts in the sister poem, “A Soldier’s Worry.”
We march through split heels,
chafed shouldertops, sprained ankles, compressed
knees, and, invariably, arthritic knuckles.
I particularly like that word “invariably.” Later more body part imagery, albeit now wed to some nice description of the physical world:
The most amazing things actually do affect us,
ever so slightly: groves of oranges, broken branches,
houses foraged with rotten wood, rain, broken vessels
on elderly hands or voices floating through light brush.
Here “affect us” is echoed by “vessels,” and “groves” by “broken.” Similarly, the repetition of “broken” unites “branches” and “vessels” – the world of nature thus equated with the human body. As the soldiers walk, they are beaten down by the physical world until they become it. Even the voices only come at them “through light brush” –a nice, simple image which also manages to convey painting, and thus art in the abstract.
[Note: these are my interpretations and are in no way intended to suggest authorial intent; this is just a survey of the many association these poems, like all good poetry, inspired in me.]
As I’ve already hinted, it is in repetition where Laughlin really excels. “Lists” finds the poet guessing at the contents of a list left behind by his roommate. Each verse is structured with the casualness of a prose poem and is yet another guess at the list’s contents.
No. You are a list of morose sights—deceased grandparents, bloodied fists, crooked-billed birds with feathers still falling from once-clean windows, dead dogs on the sides of dirt roads. You are the wrong vision at the right time.
No. You are a list of pragmatic decisions—split-ups before things got too serious, pets put to sleep, gifts exchanged on Christmas Eve, shirts in donations boxes despite still being in fashion. You are a remembrance of things still around but unwound from the mind.
There is further subtler repetition here in the mention of another dead pet, this one purposefully and pragmatically “put to sleep.” Similarly, the last lines echo each other.
Another repetition poem, appropriately titled “Simultaneous Reactions,” verges on the annoying but somehow transcends that by sheer brave bombardment. It begins: “Appetites are growing, finger-skin is getting more coarse, strength is waning.” (Another reference to body parts, specifically hands, which are mentioned over and over.) The use of the gerund here makes reading it a bit of a slog, but the joy is in seeing the different uses and combinations Laughlin comes up with. “Parachutes aren’t opening, cause is no longer affecting, science is calculating.” Here “calculating” can be a verb or adjective. Another example of the same: “Waitresses are finishing doubles, carrots are digesting, work is boring.” Not carrots are “being digested,” but are doing the “digesting” (though obviously they are also being digested). Similarly one imagines work “boring” into the speaker’s skull, like a drill. Many other lines have similar effect, making us question our preconceptions of the meaning of words. The sum total of all this repetition is to soak the reader in the variety of world. The poem ends, “I am brimming with capability, I am leaning side-angled into nothing, I am proselytizing.” Not only does this nicely bring the lens back around to the observer, it also hints at the meaning of all these “Simultaneous Reactions.” The poet is “brimming” with the possibilities of the world, but at the same time he is sunk in the infinite “nothing” of its excess, his only recourse “proselytizing” (really just another word for making poetry).
I wish I could sink my teeth more thoroughly into the meat of this collection. I’d like to talk about the series of “Autobiography” poems, the other “women” poems (especially “The Women I Don’t Know,” which flirts with and redetermines “The Women I Know”), or the absurdist “Not Titled,” a prose poem about, yes, a biblical rain of tacos. I hold a soft spot for the poem “Pregnant Crooked Horse,” having unwittingly inspired the title (long story), if not the subject matter, and so I feel like I have slighted it. I’d also like to discuss whether or not it was wise to have ended the collection on the title story, a strong poem which turns out to be deliciously less surreal than its name suggests, or whether it would have been better to end with another “Autobiography” poem, thus giving the collection a cleaner symmetry.
But I fear taxing the reader’s patience on a book he may never read. The good news is that the author is working on a new collection, one that he claims will be even darker and more alcohol-drenched. Until then I’ll leave you with my favorite poem in the collection, which sums up the entire history of literary friendships (the existence of which are, in fact, at least partially responsible for the writing of this review). Hopefully it will be enough to convince you that the underground of American poetry is alive and well – in fact, often more fully alive than the more heralded surface.
Upon Hearing Liakos Read From Another City While We Were Both Drunk
If you don’t keep that one
I will throw something at you.
It will be heavy,
and possibly wet.
It will be, most definitely,
something close and large.
It will be an object symbolizing
my obstructive frustration.
It will pass by your head,
grazing your cheek-skin.
It will remember you to
the sharks of your past.
It will recall the conquerable
people that made both of us.
It will punish you to leave a
contrail or convex or context.
I do not know much else about it
except that it will smash on the floor.
It will leave a mark on the ground
where I didn’t want it to.
I didn’t want it, I never ever did,
and it will crash, waking roommates.
You will look and we will laugh
but you gotta keep that one.
You’ve got to, got to—because
there is only one envelope left.
It will shatter next to the only envelope
left in the entire universe forever.
[Note: if you are interested in receiving a free electronic copy of this collection, email Jeff Laughlin at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will post details about his follow-up collection as they become available.]