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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Travis Nichols reviews

Tremolo by Spencer Short

HarperCollins, $13

This piece is 700 words or about two printed pages long

Spencer Short’s debut collection of poems begins with a quasi-caveat that welcomes readers as it warns them, ‘around here, my dears, no one sleeps.’ Indeed, everything in the book — from the speaker to his lovers to the summery crickets in the yard — seems too wired and wound around youthful joy and despair to do anything as banal as sleep. Short’s careful and inventive sensibility has scoured the scenes as well as the language of pedestrian life for the music and subtle ironies embedded in each in order to recreate Tremolo’s world where the moleskin pants of the waitress go ‘swit / sweat /sweet,’ the spine is a ‘scoliotic question mark,’ and ‘nothing means what it did ten minutes ago.’ Occasionally, Short’s micromanaging of sense and language fills his lines to the point of bursting with adjectival overload, but mostly it endears the reader to the ever present consciousness filtering and fracturing the outside world, so that when said reader finishes the last poem (which begins, ‘Finally, the bullshit is over’) and re-engages with the everyday, she too may begin to see that, as the man says, ‘there is nothing to not be amazed at.’

Tremolo is Short’s attempt to lyrically document his twenties, which according to his bio, consisted of lecturing, wine stewarding, bouncing, copy editing, and keg schlepping. Drinking and detox are large thematic concerns with life lessons squeezed from each (‘Equally though our failures be a form / Of love & law & each a new lesson’); bits of advice are strewn about apparently unheeded (‘take your vitamins,’ ‘say your pantoums’); and the lines overflow with the names of friends, peers, lovers, and art, (Paul Klee, Mathew Arnold, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Lao Tzu, Abbott and Costello, Nietzsche, Tanya, X, Lloyd, Will Oldham, Wittgenstein, and the Breeders, to name a few) in the same way young lives often overflow with the same. The overall effect can be too cute and Zeitgeist -y for its own good (the lines ‘. . .It’s a post-modern, post-Romantic, / Post-It kind of world. . .,’ for example), but more often than not it is endearing and clever (‘who doesn’t love the sky torn open like a letter’), leaving Tremolo resounding with the sense of a struggle not joyfully gone through, but finished nonetheless and recollected as accurately and as generously possible. The histrionic name droppings can, at their worst, seem like the literary equivalent of stuffing a small apartment with status symbols, but more often than not the technique serves to contextualize complex tradition and thought with an Epicurean flair. All the people, poems, and history provide touchstones out of Short’s highly individual universe into the larger world of literary history, so the book can, with little effort, be read as a contemporary extension of the work of Mayokovsky, O’Hara, and Berryman, among others.

Along with gathering influence ranging from the band Belly to literary critic Terry Eagleton, Tremolo weaves intelligent argument and everydude diction in a way that remarkably bridges the gap between the watery domesticity of a Billy Collins and the linguistic hijinx of a Bob Perelman. A good example is the poem ‘Romanticism,’ which plays upon both the popular Meg Ryan definition of the term and, well, Keats:

Just to read Keats’s letters, drink a beer,
Watch the yard slip quietly into its petticoat of darkness:
How in the one to his brother the soul emerges only
After great effort and even then along a steady

Dialectic of loss and more loss, each of us
Perambulating our own dim forest of predatory grandmothers
And invidious wolves, our bread crumbs eaten hours ago

In a moment of now-embarrassing weakness.
Which explains, I think, the kiss.

This sort of dazzling oscillation coupled with Short’s predilection for puns (the title ‘As One, Creaking, Carries His Enormous Head Through the Bazaar, So Each of Us Is Carried Through the Bizarre,’ for example) induce the kind of eye-rolling giggles that Tremolo’s overriding sense of play and excitement affords. Though clearly a product of the most common version of the New York School (good times with O’Hara, Ashbery, and Koch, a little down time with Schuyler, but no balloon rides with Barbara Guest), Short’s debut manages to be a singular achievement, both astute and warm, that hopefully represents only the first meditation in an ongoing and fruitful emergency.

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