Nora Delaney on Paul Legault's The Other Poems

No Reason to Get Suspicious

a review by Nora Delaney

Let's get this out of the way first: the writing of Paul Legault's The Other Poems is not beautiful. I'm not sure you can call anything beautiful that features Jean-Paul Sartre proclaiming "I'd let [God] fuck my tits." Another thing: I'm not sure that the pieces in this collection are poems, certainly not straight-out-of-the-box anthology-candy poems. They do bear some of the features one expects in poetry: line breaks do not correspond to page width, and each piece is an informal sonnet with a rough fourteen line structure.

The pieces in The Other Poems are rather constructed like dialogue, with characters speaking and responding to each other. Perhaps Legault's pieces — poems — are really hybrids of poetry and drama: not dramatic monologues, but, rather, dramatic dialogues. Reading The Other Poems, I imagined how it might be to hear them performed. I think that experience would be preferable to my solitary internal reading of words on the page. The characters are boisterous and absurd, I want to see them act out in some hallucinatory caberet. I want to sit in a dark speakeasy with a short strong drink in my hand while the characters are cast under bright — even garish — spotlights, given voice by equally bright and garish actors.

In her praise for the collection on the book's cover, poet Mary Jo Bang compares Legault to Samuel Beckett, and she is not far off the mark. Beckett brought the hapless Vladimir and Estragon to the stage in Waiting for Godot in the 1950s. Beckett was writing after two world wars that changed technology and popular consciousness radically, after the liberating literary experiments of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Beckett's absurdity was a response.

Much has changed in Legault's own brief 27 years as well. We have, in global terms, the move to a Post-Cold War and largely post-colonial world; we have 9/11 and its repercussions; we have globalization. None of this, however, features explicitly in Legault's writing, which is markedly apolitical. More important to these poems are our cultural shifts: how the seamless omnipresence of the internet has united everything that was once diffuse, and how human consciousness is shaped by the internet.

This collection seems to be responding to the question of how you write poetry in the age of the internet. Paul Legualt makes it one of the characters in his dialogues. He gives the internet a voice — as much as this is possible. Incorporating the language of email and websites — language not normally considered poetic with a capital P — into his writing, Legault presents it as just another valid linguistic register. The piece called "The Music from Inside," for instance, includes these lines:

ringtone to your cell
thanks to, and

These lines are jarring for a couple of reasons. We don't expect the inclusion of email addresses in a poem, and although the line "ringtone to your cell" is the sort of market-speak that postmodern poets have been incorporating for years, it is used with less pun or incongruity than most. Legault takes the phrase as it is used in the market and uses it in his poem in the same context. These postmodern registers also raise problems in reading. If this is poetry, and if it is meant to be read aloud, to be heard (as imagined with my caberet-theater suggestion), how the hell do you pronounce those email addresses? Fat-underscore-boy-four-one-eight-at-yahoo-dot-com is not as much of a problem, but pinky-ar-el-forty-one-at-yahoo-dot-com takes a few seconds to comprehend. (I looked up that first address out of curiosity, and, as of the time of my search, it was not a true functioning address associated with someone in the real world.) While this poem simply uses the language of the internet and email, others give the internet direct speaking roles. For instance, "God Remembers the Nineties" includes Wikipedia as one of its interlocutors:

WIKIPEDIA: Some people are listening to "The Dolphin's Cry."

Why Wikipedia is saying this is uncertain. If you search for "The Dolphin's Cry" on the site, you are rewarded with the information that it is "a song by the alternative rock band Live. It was released as the first single from their fourth studio album The Distance to Here in 1999. The song was co-produced by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads." (accessed February 16, 2012). Legault, by referencing Wikipedia, nudges us outside the poem and into the world (or at least onto our computers, which, for many of us, constitutes a great deal of our world).

The presence of Wikipedia seems deliberately anachronistic: the poem's title is "God Remembers the Nineties," and the site was launched in 2001. Perhaps the internet is as God here, a repository of all information from all eras — the beginning and the end. If you want to get more absurd, however, turn to "Shiny Things Inside of Other Shiny Things," where Robert Frost and the internet have a conversation:

ROBERT FROST: Where should I put my hat?
THE INTERNET: I am behind you.

As absurd and apparently nonsensical as this dialogue and others in the book are, they make a kind of sense at times or at least pick at the margin-edges of ideas. The collision of types of referents is a repeated theme — Frost and the internet in this poem: titans from different worlds colliding. In another piece, Vidal Sassoon (a line of salons and hair products) shares space with Siegfriend Sassoon (an English World War One poet):

SIEGFRIEND SASSOON: Who murdered the daffodils?
VIDAL SASSOON: Whose hair is that [. . .]?

The references are sly; Sassoon (Siegfried, that is,) wrote a poem called "Daffodil Murderer." Legault's readers must therefore be as versed in literature and philosophy — must know Sartre, Frost, and Siegfried Sassoon, or at least be canny enough to look them up on Wikipedia — as they are in contemporary culture to get all the jokes.

Several times Legault builds a poem upon a pun. In addition to Sassoon/Sassoon, he also gives us Dolly/Dolly. "God Remembers the Nineties" features Wikipedia as well as Dolly, the cloned sheep — a true nineties phenomenon — and the next poem of the collection, "Wet Paint," features Dolly Parton. Legault linking these two is no coincidence: Dolly the sheep was cloned from a mammary cell, and named after the country singer famous for her own mammary glands. Legault's linguistic connections echo real-world connections. His writing is driven by associations like this, and that is one of its most interesting features.

Associations span the collection, uniting it so it is truly a collection and not a loose federation of unrelated writings. We have Dolly and then Dolly. The Sassoons find an echo in the character of the Little Bassoon in another poem. In "Big & Close," Shakespeare's Caliban, transplanted to New York, speaks; two pages later, in "The Great Greats," Prospero answers. The characters Stacy and Helen appear in one poem, and they return, diminished, as Little Stacy and Little Helen in another.

Maine, California, and Louisiana are speaking characters in the poems, as are Spring and Autumn, and, strangely, they ground the works in the way they combine the abstract and the concrete. Spring is a time, an intangible concept; but, at the same time, we have real and concrete associations with it: new grass shoots, the wet earth after rain, and so on. The same goes for U.S. states: Maine is a name, a created conceptual space delineated with border for political and social purposes. But it also occupies a certain amount of land in the concrete world. You can stand on a sidewalk in Portland and it is a real thing — concrete beneath your feet — but it is also part of the abstraction that is Portland, which is enveloped in the greater abstraction that is Maine, which is again enclosed in our concept of the United States, and so on. The play with abstract and concrete, and their representation, is part of Legault's experiment.

Indeed, everything speaks in the imaginative space of these poems. Even — or especially — the non-sentient. Playfully, in "Everything's First Time," Legault features California speaking:

CALIFORNIA: The deer are both hatless and nude.

Did Robert Frost take the deer's hat? The strange connections return. A couple of lines later, the idea of non-sentience is addressed head-on by a (non-sentient) basket of fish:

BASKET OF FISH: I am not sentient.

If the internet and a basket of fish can talk, what does it mean to be human in The Other Poems? Instability, for one. As the poem "Company" reveals, two aspects of the same person can be in dialogue — in conflict, rather — with one another:

NEW DANIELA: I want old Daniela.
OLD DANIELA: I resent you.

The theme of the fractured self is continued in the atypically long title of the poem on the page facing "Company": "We Are Made Up of Smaller Versions of Ourselves Stacked Up on Top of the Smaller Versions of Ourselves' Shoulders Like a Human Ladder Wearing a Trenchcoat so that We Look Like Just 'One Normal-Sized Person Coming Through Here, No Reason to Get Suspicious.'" It is a funny-haha title; the image is straight out of the cartoons — but Legault is also making a more thoughtful point about identity and the way we conceive of and present ourselves: it is not always a united front, as much as we try to make it. Our expectations and understanding of the world are slippery, The Other Poems suggest.

This collection is not always enjoyable to read — certain parts are a slog — but there are genuinely funny moments, jokes that make you laugh. At its core is a slipperiness of expectation. The existentialist absurdity of The Other Poems forces the reader to grasp, desperately, at the straws of association that Legault drops. Whether the collection works better as poetry, thought-experiment, or theater, though, I am not sure. There is no doubt that Legault is teasing his readers. But he also raises questions about how we conceptualize the world, how we break it down and categorize it. By setting characters from different temporal and social realms on a collision course, and giving voice to what doesn't have voice or thought, he shows us what literature, or rather, the imaginative arts, can do.

Nora Delaney is a poet, translator and critic living in Boston. She works in the writing program at MIT.

in this article

The Other Poems
by Paul Legault
Softcover, $15.95
Fence Books