I’m a member of The Rumpus online poetry book club. All the books are soon-to-be-released, so this sense of discovery is exciting. We also receive an online visit from the author once during the discussion month. I’ve been doing this for about nine months now, and what I like most is that I would have never discovered some of these books without the group. In fact, my favorite book so far is one that I would have overlooked: Joseph Harrington’s Things Come On: An Amneoir (Wesleyan University Press).
Honestly, I would have passed it up because of my own contrariness. When I first read the book’s concept, which is a combination of memoir and amnesia reflecting on the poet’s mother’s breast cancer and the Watergate scandal, I was suspicious. It sounded like something of reach to de-emphasize the writer, which is very much the fascination right now, something Tony Hoagland refers to as the “unself-importance.” What’s more, the jacket copy posits so much of Language poetry’s tenets in such often used phrases that these philosophies—once posed to resist mainstream Confessional poetry—sound frayed and worn—almost as if Language poetry is now very much part of a system that purports to critique systems.
By page ten, however, I was hooked. Through the mix of documents such as Nixon's transcripts, journal entries, condolence cards, insurance letters, doctors' reports, and so on, a full sense of grief and frustration comes through. And I have to admit something: this is the first poetry book in about ten years that has fished out a tear from me. I wish I could provide a poem to show off what I loved about this book, but the poems are not intended to be stand-alone documents. Each passage is part of the book’s overall narrative arc. What I can do is give a glimpse of how the juxtapositions leave the the reader to experience and create associations and (dis)connections on his own.
On pages twenty-four through twenty-six, we have a variety of documents. The first is a quote from a Nixon aide telling him “that there was a cancer growing in the Presidency and that if the cancer was not removed that the President himself would be killed by it” (24). What follows is a cartoon with the caption: “Kids will know…. Even if they don’t know all the details, they know something’s wrong” (25). The next page provides quotes from the father about how the mother would remain cheerful through all of the treatments, even when she knew she was dying. The father says that she would “get frustrated” but that “would pass” (26). This conversation is then followed by a doctor talking about how “in order to keep [family and friends] from falling apart, the woman tries to keep her chin up and have a smile plastered on her face” (26). All of this is juxtaposed against another’s aid’s opinion that “the President did not seem to understand the implications of what was going on” (26). What follows is more conversation between the father and poet on how the mother’s two sisters had died of breast cancer. Finally, the page ends with the mother’s once again painfully chilling cheerfulness: “June 20—Saw Dr. Fleming. All OK. Increase medication to 3 a day” (26). It is exactly what is not said between these passages that renders such complex meanings.
What is also being omitted in many of these poems is the use of first-person to tell a personal story, which is one of the many strategies used to undercut the writer, or that authorial “I.” Harrington further subverts the authorial “I” through his own admission of fallibility. He does so immediately with the title and early in the collection where the dates of his mother’s cancer are intentionally confused to the point of error. Another strategy to undercut the “I” is to privilege the reader in making meaning—which is, of course, a fundamental tenet of Language poetry. The effect of all of this is one of vibrancy, honesty, and originality.