The best jokes are linear. This happens and then this happens and then punch line. They work because they feel inevitable. Of course the chicken crossed the road because he wanted to get to the other side. Of course cheese that isn’t yours is called nacho cheese. Of course the old man upon hearing his old wife exclaim, “SUPER PUSSY!” is going to choose the soup. They work because even though you know you should have seen it coming, you didn’t, and the surprise, the inevitable surprise, is delightful, is almost miraculous to us. So much so, that our bodies convulse, our eyes grow large, and we experience a kind of awe. Something that borders on spiritual fulfillment:
You don’t have to wake up every morning to
the same totally comprehensible scenario.
Poems, when they work, often work the same way. This happens and then this happens and then we revel in a revelation, or perhaps, the lack of one. The sadness of Walt Whitman’s “Drum-taps,” is both surprising and inevitable following, “Song of Myself.” Elizabeth Bishop’s, “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow,” is the only conclusion we can accept in a poem about fishing … but only after we’ve read it. There is a dependable order to both jokes and poems that oddly allows us to delight in our amazement, in our inability to see it coming. It’s a leap of faith, really: a willingness to hand ourselves over to the machinations of the poem/joke, and be led somewhere greater than we could lead ourselves.
These paths (there are an infinite number of them) are great and greatly realized in Sarah Galvin’s debut poetry collection, The Three Einsteins, out now from Poor Claudia. In the very first poem, we are introduced to our speaker, an occasionally introspective raconteur oozing an absurd machismo. While we are using familiar tropes, Galvin’s “I” is the guy at the party with lampshade on his head, the girl you knew in high school who was never alone, the artist who makes only grand gestures, in short, her “I” is a John Hughes character writ large:
I want to spend my entire paycheck buying fancy drinks
for ladies, and I want at least three of the ladies to be you.
Though it is the magnetic charm of our speaker that draws us in, it’s the poems that plunge their hooks into our brains and keep us turning the pages. Predominately prose poems, the narrative they build (if one goes looking for it) is one of personal discovery. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I read a reviewer say that about a book I’d probably stop reading the review right there and never think of the book again, but Galvin’s discovery happens in a really fascinating way.
The persona, you see, never crystalizes in the ways we are accustomed, rather it grows ever more complicated as the book goes on, as if the point was to appreciate one’s own form in a fogged over mirror:
I know I’m a man, with my bulldozer and my dozens of
illegitimate children, and the way I explode in the micro-
wave and glow under a black light, but all I really want
is to be your pretty lady.
We are trying on many hats, not to see which one fits best, but to realize that they all fit, all the time, and that this doesn’t make us inferior, no, it actually makes us the best. Galvin’s speaker isn’t lazy about identity in the way a lot of us are (casually switching to make things easier in certain scenarios), she is actively being a lover, a sad sack, a country singer, a grandmother, because it needs to be done. This, folks, isn’t a person trying to fit into whatever hole you’ve left, this is Galvin doing us a favor and taking on the roles we need filled in our lives whether we recognize it or not.
One could spend a lot of time talking about modern identity politics and how these things affect society, but I don’t think that is a conversation that serves the ultimate point of these poems. These, at their heart, are love poems. Full of “I/Thou” sentiment, proclamations of adoration, and, as is always the case with capital ‘R’ romantics, sadness that their love isn’t requited:
I want to say something that suggests I’ve endured
some exotic, indescribable torture
but a completely mundane thing has happened,
which is you have stopped loving me.
This book is not all lovey-dovey or dopey sadness, though. In fact, if there is one thing our speaker is willing to lock down about her identity, it’s an inability to be romantic in that Nicholas Sparks kind of way, or perhaps more exactly, a refusal to call that tripe romance. Love is dirty. Love is confusing. Love is drinking a beer, naked, in a crowd of people who are not naked. In short, love is the epitome of the grotesque:
We smash each other into human shapes with the massive
homogeny of our thoughts, whose only purpose, ever, has
been to get each other’s mouths open, and spit into them.
Unlike other contemporary poems that take interest in the grotesque, the moments we veer into that territory here, I can’t say I’m instantly put off. Most of it feels purposeful and earned and a necessary part of this grand explanation. In short, where other poets might fall into absurdist territory, Galvin’s use of the grotesque makes the love in these love poems feel more real, more tangible, as though she finally figured out how to share her love with someone else without relying on stupid metaphors, or mentioning the vastness of the ocean.
I began this review by mentioning jokes, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk, however briefly, about how funny Sarah Galvin’s poems are. There are things that shock, yes, but there are also moments of supreme cleverness, and high-concept humor that keep you engaged, that make you feel like the speaker has an interest in you, the reader. Why else do we tell jokes but to entertain those willing to hang around us? I’m not saying Galvin is acting generous in this way, but I’m also not saying I’m not grateful for her attentions. In fact, I think we should all be a little grateful she wrote this book for us.
In this spirit, I’ll leave you with a few lines from the poem, “Nietzsche’s Glasses”:
They have neon green plastic frames
and say “PA” in the right lens and “RTY” in the left,
exactly like the pair Nietzsche had.
I send you a picture of myself wearing
them while reading “The Portable
Nietzsche,” and hope you’ll laugh.
The Three Einsteins, by Sarah Galvin. Portland, Oregon: Poor Claudia. 80 pages. $15.00, paper.
BJ Love is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he has taught writing for over ten years, most recently with Writers in the Schools in Houston, Texas. He is the author of, Yes, I’m Sure This was a Beautiful Place, a collection of poems written in collaboration with Lucas Pingel and Michigander. Additionally, BJ produces “Pretty LIT,” a podcast that mixes popular music with literature from today and yesterday and has been featured on PRX and The Poetry Foundation. His poems can be found in journals such as Forklift, OH; Sink Review; Pinwheel; Coconut; and H_NGM_N, and his reviews have appeared in Cant, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Savannah Morning News.