Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 19, 2015

Patricia Lockwood, _Balloon Pop Outlaw Black_

HEATHER CHRISTLE'S FIRST two books were published by Octopus before her third was published by Wesleyan, and now, Patricia Lockwood's first book having been published by Octopus, her second is published by Penguin. The good folks at Octopus are turning out to be poetry talent scouts of no mean skills, I would say.

I have not read Lockwood's new book, only (like a good many folks) "Rape Joke." I am very curious, though, whether her second follows in the vein of her first, for her first turns out not to be much like "Rape Joke." Balloon Pop Outlaw Black draws more on the Tate-isms and Ashbery-isms that crowd the work of a very large number of poets under forty these days.

Some poetry readers are unhappy, I know, that surrealism of this stripe has become the current default mode of American poetry--Lockwood makes it work, though, I would say.

The book is in three sections, each section named for the long poem that opens it, and each long poem is in dialogue with an animated cartoon: Popeye in the first two sections, Pinocchio in the final one. This seems cannily chosen, for cartoons are the surrealism that even children love.

Cartoons inhabit a world both ours and not-ours. Both worlds have houses, but the walls of our houses do not take on a sudden elasticity; both worlds have pockets, but our pockets cannot produce sledgehammers and dynamite at an instant's notice.

Literary writing takes place in the same kind of interzone, trading in both representation and fantasy. What unites figures as diverse as Shakespeare, Dickens, Nabokov, and Toni Morrison is their knowing how to blend representation and fantasy, to make it real by making it up. Cartoons have a secret underground connection to literature. Surrealism is where the kinship becomes most visible.

This is why surrealism will always wbe with us. It always was with us. "The wife soothes the cow as it makes a copy, and skims cream-colored stationery off her milk," writes Lockwood, bowing towards fantasy, but the book builds gender into its dream--Popeye has a mother in these poems, and the whale in which Pinocchio lives is female--in a way that feels insistently real and things-as-they-are.

Works for me. But I wonder whether she kept up this sort of thing as a Penguin Poet. Seems unlikely, somehow. We will see.

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