Accents Publishing, 2011; 57 pages : $10.00
ISBN: 978-1-936628-03-2, paper
Reviewed by George Wallace
The prose poem is a favored genre of long standing, and when coupled with modernist philosophical tension, produces poetry not just of playful dalliance or incidental cleverness, but memorable flowers of evil grown in the horribly rich bed of existential soil.
Think the artful expressions of disgust with the bourgeois conventions, found in Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Think the contemptuous anti-intellectual absurdism, found in hapless Max Jacob and certain European Dadaists.
That's why when a contemporary poet gets the philosophical underpinnings of the prose poem genre right, it's something more than cleverness, but rather something to be celebrated.
That's Thom Ward all over, in Etcetera's Mistress — particularly in the very fine prose poems found in the book's final section, entitled "Fog in a Suitcase."
In these nine poems alone, Ward finds his stride, states his case, and produces work that goes beyond the competent to the realm of the memorable.
There's no doubt that Ward understands what a prose poem is traditionally meant to address, and that he is capable of addressing it with substantial skill and resolution for a man of his particular generation — essentially a baby boomer of certain age who teaches in a graduate creative writing program and 'lives in western New York with his girlfriend Jennifer and their cat Phantom.'
Lest that be incorrectly thought of as a disparaging snapshot cherrypicked from his one paragraph 'About the Author' page, the implications suggested in that one denotative phrase — without hitting them with a hammer — are palpably useful in examining the accuracy and power of his poems in this collection,
ie, a man caught in the his generation's version of the existential dilemma.
Does the modern era contain horrors in it of an order and scale to match mustard gas and trench warfare of WWI? The genocidal menace of the Nazi era? The drawing room ennui of Prufrockian England? Or the blind compliance of the incredibly stupid and complacently patriotic in any era (I like to think the title's drawn from e.e. cummings' deliciously absurd 'my sweet old etcetera' wherein the speaker satirizes those who confidently knit socks and jump with their fellow patriots into the killing mud.)
I'm not going to enumerate the details. One needs only to cast a quick eye over the trajectory of American post WWII history, the period in which Ward has lived, to give at the very least a qualified yes.
Arguably, the existential dilemma can produce an impressively dull paralysis in the hearts and souls of man in most any era.
Ward depicts that condition with aplomb, in the 'Fog in a Suitcase' section of the book.
An artist depicted in "Suspension" attempts to portray, like Magritte, 'the perfect suspension of ambivalence' in his paintings, while the scaffold of his actual existence crumbles. "Better to let the scaffold crumble, exhaust the rumor of itself," he declares, deftly revealing the essential irony for an artist who tries to become adept at portraying expressive paralysis.
In "Elevator" Ward offers us a man who favors 'the absurdity of addressing each day's tasks to the absurdity of ignoring' them. In "Exhileration, Fluidity" we're treated to a honkytonk angel whose best dreams are tucked like thoughts of shoes yet to be purchased in her closet. "Floss" relies somewhat on cleverness of caricature to give us a portrayal of the tension between surface polish and underlying decay, yet it gets the job done.
In "Logos," Ward is at his most allusive to Prufrock, a poem not just full of fog and teacups and silhouettes, but the helpless sense of inertia in the dull and unfathomable ennui of Iiving.
"Anticipation" offers us a purely existential opening, a la "Waiting for Godot": "Nothing was coming down the road. Still, he went out in the middle of the night to meet it." "Immensity" gives us a bald man with a large belly waiting at a bus stop, whose paralytic inability to get on any of the passing buses is only partially attributable to the duffel bag in his hand, 'heavy with the weight of its contents.'
"Road Test, Defiance, Ohio" offers us a driving instructor who is gripped with internal musings of a lifeless, loveless existence just as she is in the process of teaching a kid to 'grip the wheel' of resigned middle American existence. "You're doing fine, she says…That was better than before, that was good."
Then there's "Query," a fitting companion piece to James Schuyler's "Korean Mums," which portrays a similar elliptic mental flight from garden party pretentions — but in this case, a festival of good old boy misbehavior. In it, Ward presents a woman struggling with the effort to engage in futile mental distraction from the mundane — in this case, the tawdry ruckus of misbehaving adults in lawn chairs trying to escape the mundane with bourbon, potato chips and beer bottles tossed into the marigolds. "What was needed, she…suspected, was more distance. An impossibility, at least while they continued to hold forth…"
It's in the recognition of that essential dilemma — the absolute necessity of gaining distance and the impossibility of doing so — that Thom Ward's best poems find rich soil in which to root.
In the end, we are invited to join him as he spins his wheels in the existential sand, longing as he does to drive the long distance out of here. "Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there." says Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac in On the Road. "Where we going, man?" "I don't know but we gotta go."
Like Kerouac, Thom Ward reminds us in Etcetera's Mistress that even if there's no real road going possible, we may at least share the delicious pain of paralysis —'something like happiness, something like grief' — with a like-minded soul.
I for one climb into the passenger seat gladly.
George Wallace is author of nineteen chapbooks of poetry, including Poppin' Johnny (Three Rooms Press, 2009). He is editor of Poetrybay, Poetryvlog and other publications.