University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, 80 pages, $14.95.
If you pick up Russell Edson’s latest collection of poems, See Jack, it just might break your heart: With a carnivorous hat or with an incontinent faucet or with a plate (or a potato) with which a family desperately wants to have sex (though they heroically resist). Cellists slip into bed with their instruments, cows don slickers and boots, dogs dine out at restaurants, and men clip leashes to their collars to take themselves for walks. That is to say, Edson’s latest collection, remarkably his nineteenth, delivers all of what his readers have come to expect: deceptively simple prose poems that sketch a surreal world in which the joke is always on all of us, including Edson. Neither humor nor absurdity detracts from the deep pathos of Edson’s figures—human, animal, vegetable, mineral or otherwise—who struggle with the basic laws of the universe, laws which evoke as much comedy as tragedy.
For the reader accustomed to Edson’s ambulatory toilets and vociferous apes or his brilliantly puerile and oedipal imagination, many of these poems will feel familiar. For some the repetition of theme and tactic may annoy. Others might find in See Jack the elaborations of an utterly distinctive mind printing over and over again the uncanny silhouettes of a life lived precariously in a state of illuminating and taxing estrangement. The world Edson has, for decades, shared with his readers operates by its own rules. Here’s the Edson we expect in “A Man Who Went for a Walk”:
There was a man who attached a collar and leash to his
neck. And, holding the leash in one hand, took himself for a
walk, lifting his leg every so often to mark his way . . .
What kind of animal is a man? Not quite a dog, it seems, though he needs a walk, an opportunity to relieve himself, and a means of marking his way through the world. In that world, the simplest actions assume a weighty and often threatening significance. Take the opening of “The Hunger”:
A man puts his head in a hat. But the hat thinks he’s feed-
ing it, and begins to swallow his head.
No, no, Hat, I’m just completing my costume!
But his hat begins to suck his head like a huge mouth nurs-
ing a breast, sucking the milk of his thoughts into its crown.
As in his famous “Ape and Coffee,” this poem continues Edson’s conversation with what should be an inarticulate universe of animals and things. Clothes should be no more than costuming, but this man feels swallowed by the world, just as the world seems animated by the desire to feed. Being devoured by the world solicits the work of the mind, but man is not enough for the world and the world is not enough for the man. This relationship of mutual need and insufficiency haunts “The Addiction”:
Two monkeys on my back. One real, the other, not. Which
one is, and which one’s not, is hard to say. And so there are
two . . .
Sometimes I almost know, but then they move.
The maddening dance of identical specters, the real and the unreal, has been the main attraction of Edson’s poetry for decades. How to know what’s true (or untrue) in a world observed by a mind for which even the most ordinary facets of that world are bizarre and uncanny? And in that world, how can we tell who is pulling the strings? “The Dummies,” opens: “A contortionist twisted himself in such a way as to be sitting on his own knee.” However potent the illusion may be, a ventriloquist’s dummy borrows its voice from a seemingly mute human. Not satisfied with uncanny reversal of ventriloquist and dummy, Edson is more interested in the way a man must twist himself into his own dummy to have the capacity to speak. Every Edson poem is a self-portrait in a mirror into which a speaker gazes, trying to tell if he’s the source of his own voice. And as readers we can’t help but watch over his shoulder, seeing ourselves in the very same mirror.
But there’s also, here, something darker than in the most poignant of Edson’s previous poems, even considering the progressively mordant tone of his last few books. On the cover of See Jack a one-eyed Russell Edson, painted by Russell Edson (as most of his covers are), stares at the very small cup he grips in his hand. In the other he grasps an egg. Which comes first: chicken or egg, life or death? For the author of an early volume called The Wounded Breakfast, a simple morning meal opens up absurd vistas of contemplation. The truly novel portions of See Jack exist as a pure and concentrated instance of late style, and, as Shakespeare’s Prospero predicts of his future retirement in The Tempest, every third thought is of death. Death is referred to as “the fatal accident” in the opening poem, “Accidents.” Unintended acts seem central to the human in Edson’s universe, just as life is little more than a brief remission, a pause between fatal accidents. Hence we find in See Jack a series of poems about Humpty Dumpty and his famous fall. How many times can the pieces be put back together before utter weariness overwhelms?
See Jack takes place in a twilight characterized by a mixture of tedium and the anticipation of death. “The Endless Night,” contemplates the “moment . . . who married time and sired eternity . . . who bored people to death with a usualness like those practical graves of useful holes.” Ordinary routines are as threatening here as the contemplation of mortality. Perhaps they are one and the same. In the title poem, “See Jack,” Edson breaks from his usual narrative (or dramatic) prose poem into the meditative repetitions that characterize children’s books:
Any number of positions . . .
See Jack asleep.
See Jack up and pacing.
Any number of cups raised, emptied and lowered any
number of times.
See Jack drinking coffee.
Life may be lived in a state of casual recurrence, but there is still only one end possible: “See Jack dead . . . Where’s Jane?” The hope is for companionship. But might we ask, also, if Edson’s surrealism was always a way of looking away from death. “Of the Night” begins with a couple struggling and failing to close their eyes:
A woman was trying to thread a needle to sew her hus-
band’s eyes to sleep.
At first the idea was that of death. And then it was less. Fi-
nally becoming just another of the things one is put to do . . .
It was his idea, he had seen enough.
The irony of this poem is that neither husband nor wife can see well enough to thread the needle that would seal their eyes shut. At the end, the needle goes to sleep, closing its eye as the husband and wife cannot. The proximity of sleep and death haunt “An Old Man Putting an Old Man to Bed,” in which an old man administers to himself forms of care richly desired and utterly impossible: “He could do everything for the old man except kiss him on his forehead as children are done before they sleep.” We die, as the saying goes, in our own arms. Perhaps companionship is as impossible as the cessation of sight.
Like the lessons of children’s books, which also rely on the music of repetition, the lessons of See Jack are so simple as to defy comprehension. The only sadness in death is loneliness. Jack seeks Jane, an old man tries to put himself to bed with gestures of care only another person can provide, and the whole world joins together as an audience seeking its ultimate ending. The final poem, “Waiting for the Fat Lady to Sing,” imagines “the longest opera ever written” (an apt description of life) in which everyone waits for death together. Many in the audience have “died in their seats,”
But others felt, what better way to die than waiting for the
fat lady to sing in the make-believe of theater, where nothing’s
real, not the fat lady, nor even death . . .
The business of death, be it in the “wills” of the dying or the “flies and microbes” of those already dead, matter less than the marvelous theater of the imagination.
The profundity of Edson’s genius has perhaps never been as fully appreciated as it should, in spite of his fervent following. But Edson is one of the few poets one would trust to survive an encounter with death itself and find ever new terrain for poetry. See Jack is as much the capstone of a singular career as it is a point of departure for Edson’s ongoing practice of things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.