Nothing could be worse for a poet than to be termed ‘sentimental’ — the specter of Hallmark looming in the shadows — but as Richard Hugo famously advised, poets must risk sentimentality in order to approach good poetry. Steve Langan takes this risk in his first collection, Freezing, and time and again the bet pays off. Langan’s desolate Midwest landscapes and off-the-chart emotional IQ inevitably bring Hugo to mind. It seems like the characters of Hugo’s poems are forever making impossibly long drives to distant towns, tortured by dreams of world-class fishing, varsity sports, women, and childhood. In Freezing the characters seem to be forever concluding their business on one side of the bar or the other, or looking out the window of a chilly apartment situated unusually close to an interstate overpass. ‘When they ask, I nod. / If they beg, this is how I pour: / bottle vertical, bubbling // a little extra, splashing / like sudden rain on the rooftop. . .’ Langan writes in ‘Barkeep:’
I walk home
through the dark parking lot,
change musical in my pocket
loosening and fading white
and when I throw it all down
on the table next to where
Elizabeth waits, sleeping,
it shines like a blade.
With both Hugo and Langan, the prospect of good poetry in these terminally John Wayne situations seems slim to none, making their prodigious poetic accomplishments all the more astonishing. Far from the helpless victim of these prairie vagrancies, as Hugo often portrays himself, Langan remains firmly in control of the universe of his poems, absorbing their images and creating his own peculiar mythology. In ‘Driving into the Unbeautiful City,’ a three-page poem of tercets in which the title repeats throughout, Langan creates a new world more familiar but just as disquieting as Eliot’s timeless ‘unreal city.’ Writing in hypnotic meter, in an arresting second person, ‘your reservations are at eight / the man you must meet speaks only Italian / Driving into the unbeautiful city,’ Langan is the puppeteer pulling the world’s strings.
To the late Dr. Freud’s presumed delight, wives and mothers populate the lion’s share of these poems, providing Langan ample opportunity to explore his poetry’s emotional range. In the collection’s title poem, the speaker endeavors to assure his mother that the winter he spent sick and freezing in an unheated apartment was not her fault, but the product of his own free, sadistic choice. The parade of women, ‘just off farms,’ who spend nights with him seem to take his mother’s place, and they choose him because he ‘reminded them / of their fathers, waking for harvest, confusing their names, then pacing three rooms / with my coffee, no food there for them.’ To whatever extent Freud’s insistence on the universality of the Oedipal Complex is true, Langan’s portrayal of the subtly but surely interconnected web of emotional relationships between his characters is entirely convincing:
I dedicate this to the one who made me leave
one morning because she needed her juice.
I must have needed her warmth that badly,
but walking back, I began hating her the most,
the only one I can remember. May she live
as she decides, though she’ll leave trails
of lust and possibility if she decides.
OK, Mother, I’ll say it so they’ll know:
I did not have to freeze that winter.
Sickness did not have to enter those rooms.
Later the speaker and his wife ruminate on the people they’ve slept with, speculating which would still love them and which would try to kill them. The speaker remains sympathetic because the poet implicitly acknowledges the malice in his behavior, and at the same time, its inevitability.
‘The scariest part of any feast is dessert. / You see your twisted reflection in the tray’ (‘Dinner Poem’). Any concern that Langan belongs to the society of confessional imitators is disarmed by the fact the he always saves his greatest sacrifices for the altar of the image. Comprising the second of the book’s four sections, ‘The Black Pants’ is a series of seven poems on the seven consecutive days the speaker observes a pair of black pants lying discarded in the road outside his window. Displaying the equal parts absurdity and terror of a Vasko Popa series, Langan’s black pants are at once omen, conduit, and prophet. ‘If love was involved, it seems / to me a good way to express it / or denounce it is to throw // one’s pants from a speeding car. . .’ the speaker observes on ‘Day 3.’ On ‘Day 6:’
. . . in my pickup that finally
chirped then started with a roar
like relief, I did not run over
the black pants as I left home.
Don’t run over the black pants.
The black pants are no less ominous than Poe’s raven but are much funnier, which is to say, they prove an image that reflects a kind of Manichean vision of the world, a two-faced Janus. There is a kind of poetry that takes some event from the poet’s life — perhaps as in the case of ‘Freezing’ — and in mythologizing it explores its myriad emotional dimensions; and then there is a kind of poetry that creates something entirely new, an image, and the image becomes a lens through which the poet refracts any sentiment, idea, or vision in his vast personal repertoire. The latter is pure alchemy. In Freezing Steve Langan, like Richard Hugo, displays a considerable aptitude at both.
‘[B]elieve / me it’s / the voice / of a miserable / motherfucker / that whispers / you cannot /realize /your /world’ (‘The World’). There are plenty of instances in which Maggie Nelson also risks sentimentality in her first collection, Shiner, and then in other instances, not so much. Realizing her own world is precisely what Nelson endeavors to do throughout this collection, even as the voices, images, and characters that her speakers encounter tell her: give up, it’s impossible. Her urban environment ‘is constantly changing shape / very dangerous,’ as she writes in the book’s title poem. Nelson declares herself a city poet with all of the city’s abrasions, vulgarities, crimes, and lessons implicit in her voice.
‘What is the thing / we can love / together?’ she asks in ‘The Cord,’ one of several poems that explore the performance of love and its high degree of difficulty, ‘You chart what perishes, find / its theme. I accumulate / daily, like a shelf.’ Shiner is a book of accumulations — catalogs of images, expressions, and moments the poet collects from her city. ‘Carnegie Hall,’ the title poem of the first of the book’s three sections, reads as an amalgamation of overheard conversation:
Oh cross navigate puddles and disciplinary figures
I could mail myself as a violet
Recur as a nutritionist —
A beer’s better than a woman because it don’t get jealous
Shiny erect leg — a fake!
A jewel, a peach, hand in pocket. Thief!
As in Alice Notley’s overheard poems the reader is left to discern the patterns, themes, and discourses hidden between the lines, with the poet’s ear for the sublime amongst the banal the one and only guide. ‘Times Square’ considers the reinvented landmark, now that corporate gluttony has replaced the carnal variety, ‘now that everyone’s out shopping / or out on parole, now that / the train doesn’t stop here / anymore. Howdy, stranger.’ ‘Second Avenue, Winter’ describes dodging a group of street urinators in the East Village, while ‘Subway in March, 5:45 P.M.’ characterizes the simple pleasure of a Coney Island-bound F train as it emerges on its elevated track, affording a view of the Harbor and the Statue of Liberty on the right and ‘the pastel houses lining the canal’ on the left. Recalling Frank O’Hara and Baudelaire, the city’s landscape is Nelson’s medium.
In her catalog poems, as a sort of fly on the wall, Nelson patently rejects the individual, lyrical impulse, but in many other poems the ‘I’ takes center stage. ‘Wheels’ memorializes a Volkswagen Bug that served as the proverbial vehicle for early romantic triumphs and tragedies: ‘Oh perfect silver bug, you overheated / only once. I was seventeen // and driving back to the place / where I learned / how to be alone.’ Here, as in the best lyric poems, Nelson pursues not the synthesis of many moments but the mysteries of one. ‘The loft where we used to fuck / is inhabited by a dead elf’ (‘Light Slab Big on the Pillow’): if not lyric poetry, that could at least be some interesting material for the next David Lynch movie. ‘Actually the elf is alive, just melodramatic / and the carnival has to take to the sea’: this example of pure invention distinguishes itself in Shiner. In her lyrics Nelson risks the sentimentality that Langan repeatedly puts on the line; like a beginning medical student, however, she proves better adept at describing symptoms than delivering a diagnosis. The best poems in Shiner are those that take a snapshot of a situation, be it public or private, without making a pass at the elusive grail of the sentimental. ‘Another Waitressing Dream’ describes the speaker’s refusal and a customer’s demand for a fictitious ‘jack pie:’ ‘Well I want jack pie, / he said, and I began / to suspect I was / being had.’ ‘Losing Heart,’ which explores a car in a car wash as a metaphor for the tortures of the self, provides the collection’s one moment of true hilarity:
I was a younger man
it was all about
Mozart. Then later,
later still — Mozart!
After that, Beethoven!
Ah, but Mozart. Ah,
In these triumphs of the imagination there is no need to fool with the sentimental because the original images are those clear but complex oracles that, in their ambivalence, allow the reader to see and discover whatever she wishes.
Both Langan’s and Nelson’s poems take place in cities, but the apocalyptic plains that surround Langan’s Omaha seem to lend his poems an emotional clarity that the strip malls, cluster homes, and car dealerships of Long Island and New Jersey do not afford the poems in Shiner. Two lines in Nelson’s ‘Today’s Snow’ clearly present themselves as a mission statement: ‘Make it new, everyone kept saying / so I gave up, and made it mine.’ That’s unfortunate. When it’s new, as in ‘Another Waitressing Dream’ and ‘Losing Heart,’ it’s really hers; when it’s just hers, it sounds a lot like everyone else’s.