“Buddha signed up for Weight / Watchers after his doctor said / he was borderline diabetic,” Kathryn Mockler writes, only to continue with Buddha’s thoughts of wondering “if he could / get in trouble at Weight / Watchers […] if he / could get kicked out.” This illustrates the absurd world that Mockler investigates in her book of poems, The Saddest Place on Earth, part of the Punchy Poetry Series from DC Books and the Canada Council for the Arts. Mockler’s collection began as a response to her husband’s, David Poolman’s digital drawings, some of which accompany the poems and add to the narratives and the helplessness the poems seem to be responding to. Though the poems are comical and highly accessible, they grapple with difficult social and political problems and our cultural responses to those issues in a moving and engaging way. It may take several readings before you really begin to understand what the poems are wrestling with, but Mockler makes the journey interesting and enjoyable.
Mockler’s narrative style takes on difficult issues in an honest and unflinching way. The poems are often shocking and full of dramatic irony. In “Murder,” she narrates, “It is not a good idea to be in the same room as / someone who is just about to murder you” and then follows up with,
I wonder what it feels like to be murdered.
I’m sure it hurts your feelings and then I’m sure you
feel really mad but aren’t able to express your anger
in a productive way.
Some murderers are nicer than others.
Mockler then juxtaposes the look the murderer gets in his/her eye and compares it to “the same look you get when you unexpectedly / bring someone flowers.” Mockler often pairs the mundane and trivial with the absurd and grotesque in a startling way. The strange “hunger” that both the murderer and the one who gives flowers has in their eyes is filled with “rage, happiness” and this works to pair courtship with murder—a way of staking out a claim on another without necessarily being invited to do so.
Mockler’s social commentary takes residence inside a Chinese restaurant, that is “the saddest place on earth;” a drugstore where one goes to get pain killers and anti-depressants; a neighborhood where Deep Sadness and Contempt live; a place where a tornado approaches an Evangelical Christian; and the County Fair, where Country, Suburbia, and Big City share a tent. The setting for the different and weird is at the forefront of Mockler’s poems. Inside each poem is a response to place and politics—ignorance, dismissal, rage, contempt.
Sometimes miscommunication is created as part of social and cultural differences, as found in “The Country Fair,” where “Country felt a little / crowded and said / he was going out / for fresh air. Big / City slept soundly. / But Suburbia / grabbed Country’s / arm as he pulled / back the flap on the / tent and said make / sure you come back / —we need you.” Mockler’s poems often signify overlapping, and even confusing, political and economic boundaries.
At times, the starkness and simplicity of the poems is poignant. In “Air Vents,” Mockler wrestles with a sadly all too familiar social and political theme. The poem reads,
I think about the shooting
because all shootings
are one shooting. I think
about all the places to
hide to avoid bullets: air
vents, storage lockers,
The idea that “all shootings are one shooting” shows the absurdity of mass shootings being labeled with dates, names, and places, and instead, focuses on the loss that affects all. There is also the idea of helplessness, which is a common theme throughout the poems, and the idea of places where one can hide—which, as it turns out—aren’t many and aren’t all that feasible. The use of lineation, in particular, in this poem adds to the sharpness of the stanza.
On first read, though, Mockler’s lineation seems arbitrary. But, the use of pause in the poems often increases the dramatic irony that Mockler employs to illustrate the absurdity of social practices. The lineation creates ironic movement in the poem and juxtaposes ideas with double meanings and values. For example, in “Global Warming,” the narrator goes to a cocktail party alone and meets a man who says he has a case of “global warming” and then proceeds to explain that it is the “crazy rat race out / there. I don’t know if I’m coming or / going with everyone clambering to / make it to the top.” Mockler employs the weight of theories of “global warming” and pairs it with a similar problem—“the rate race.” The lineation works to pair the issues that both involve a global economy and an increasingly aware conscientiousness that is, at the same time, diminishing understanding.
Mockler’s collection is refreshingly unique and incredibly accessible for anyone—especially friends that don’t care for poetry—but enjoy ironic and sometimes dark humor. The Saddest Place on Earth echoes the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, who often said that we are “what we pretend to be” and so “we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Mockler demands that we look at our relationship to politics and other social pretenses with a voice that we can’t ignore. She illustrates this in “Pigeons,” a poem about a pigeon, who is walking on one leg. Mockler writes,
Really, when it
comes down to it, the passerby said, pigeons are just
awful, just good for nothing. If you want my advice,
he said, leave it alone and worry about yourself.
The Saddest Place on Earth, by Kathryn Mockler. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: DC Books. 69 pages. $17.95, paper.
Kate Kimball received an MFA from Virginia Tech in 2010. Her work has appeared in Kestrel, Weber, Ellipsis, Hawaii Review, and Midwest Literary Magazine, among others.