Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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How does the raw experience of life become art? Bouchard—whose choice of URL, “artsafart” might be read as offering some commentary on this process of difficult digestion—is a poet who seemingly draws on the lived, the overheard. In the poem, “February 15,” for instance, we are given a first-person narrator recalling a specific exchange:
Here’s what I said.
You’re beautiful. So are the things you say and
the faces you make.
Here’s what she said.
I’m seeing someone else. It’s just bad timing.
There is something here of Williams musing on plums from the icebox, or O’Hara with a glass of papaya juice, but Bouchard is explicitly indebted to Bukowski: less musing, more typing. His art is less of a fart and more of a burp, to probe the gastrointestinal metaphor a bit. This book isn’t so much breakfast or lunch, broken down to calories—it’s not even Sheila Heti with a tape recorder, weaving snippets of the real into a broader meditation—rather, this is bust-knuckle-quick reaction to and in the moment.
The real here isn’t O’Hara’s carefully curated sequins and jujubes, aspirins and harmonicas, but off-the-cuff notes on coffee shop poetry readings, erections, and texts, as is in the digital kind, the technological archive of contemporary life. “I left this blank document open / while we messaged each other, / and now here / it is / still,” we read. In another poem, we get a list of things done while smoking a cigarette: “& solicit suicide. / & stave off hunger. / & think about a pretty Jewish girl from school. / & strain to hear my heart beat. / & think about lighting myself on fire.”
I have only one thing
my refrigerator door:
a rejection slip
that reads simply
‘I don’t want to publish these.’
Goes one poem, in full. Another writhes around how “...these insipid / conversations (initiated / by yours truly) // is a poem / for a book // like so.” What is most gripping in this catalog of the real is the longing for what is lost, here a blank page, there a poem, elsewhere affection or companionship. A poem says “I love you. / I know it isn’t mutual. I just want a chance. / I want you to hear it perfectly.” Another notes how “dreaming // of a particular Hebrew girl who probably hates me // can be more / productive than / watching // A Clockwork Orange // 7 times in one / weekend, even // after having four wisdom teeth removed.”
If the narrator of one poem ends an online conversation only to stare at a blank screen, another narrator passes time “reblogging all of the things that remind me of / somebody” and yet another, also similar, voice declares “and I haven’t / been able to write / about how old / and alone I feel.” Which brings us back to the influence of Bukowski, or, to quote from the title of another piece, how these poems represent something like “your brain on Bukowski,” clattering out observations in the moment, as Mahler plays on the radio or rejection slips get read, as the drunk euphoria of the night before becomes a torrential return to the physical, the mortal, the humble, with ego emptying out into some scabby toilet.
There is the braggadocio of Bukowski here, sure, and the rage and the selectively-aimed dismissiveness—“scenesters” and “yuppies” are not appreciated, nor what these ciphers represent (“artificial personalities up for the faking”). But there is also a hearty sample of that Bukowskian poignancy, that sense of staring into the abyss of the blank page, of putting down words like “old” and “alone” or even, the real kicker, “I feel.”
“Here is a poem / for all the ones / I’ve lost,” goes another piece. “I will / write another once / I get paid for this / one.” But of course this is a tough front, a pose. He’ll write on anyway, compulsion pushing through the lonely ache and the small pleasures, through real scenes far harsher than any dental surgery or horror show.
Official Caleb Bouchard Web Site