Birds, LLC, 2012. 92 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
The title page of Dan Magers’ first book of poems, which is sized and shaped like an LP sleeve, prints the image of a photocopied album around the volume’s vital facts. This design (by Michael Newton) is appropriate because Partyknife is a mixtape of mashups. It posits, and then mocks, a reader who actually thought the book was a record, self-consciously targeting and ventriloquizing a strange and utterly contemporary niche in urban intellectual life. If you hadn’t guessed it, that’s the straight, white, puerility-that-knows-better-than-to-speak-its-name sensibility that Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern recently dubbed (in a piece for The New Inquiry that headlined Facebook news feeds for weeks) “the man-child.” Much of the strength of Partyknife derives from its presentation of this character style, and much of the debate about its value, it seems to me, hinges on how amenable readers are to the redemptive value of that much-maligned device, irony. To use a rhetoric wholly alien to Magers’ book, does Partyknife satirize its man-child so as to activate new possibilities for the interpersonal relationships it imagines? Or does it enjoy its capacity to depict the hip underworld too much to be taken seriously as a corrective to it?
Before we can answer these questions, it’s worth exploring the contours of Magers’ world, which, for all its zaniness, is not far from several notable poetic precedents. Like Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” which derides the empty potential of American brand names like Ford and L.L. Bean, Magers’ poems exult in clearing ground in the bombed-out soundscape of pop. An early poem, as close as Magers gets to an ars poetica, begins, “At karaoke, I ruined ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ for everyone.” He goes on:
[B]ack at the lab with Dr. Rob.
His mix tapes suck.
Putting together at random would have more effect.
Mixing tapes at random,
then chunks of songs at random.
I release them under the name Girl Talk.
Note that by one-upping “Dr. Rob” and then mockingly ascribing his improved work to the band Girl Talk, this speaker simultaneously promotes and maligns himself and the rhetorical devices he uses. Magers is, in this way, a satirist sans self-righteousness; he draws our attention just as equally to the four fingers pointing back as to the one that identifies its object of reproach. Of course, this is precisely David Foster Wallace’s critique of the ironist in “E Unibus Pluram”—that the stance limits him to pointing fingers and prevents his pointing the way forward. But Magers irony is anything but detached. As if countering this critique, the last lines of the poem indicate an acceptance of the necessity as well as the risk of unmediated contact: “Looking at my face without mirrors / just blew my mind.” (While the tones couldn’t be more discrepant, Wallace Stevens voices an identical sentiment in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” whose beleaguered poet is “washed away by magnitude” to see himself in an inverted “sea-glass.”) Like an embedded reporter who defies journalistic convention by adopting the language games of his subjects, Magers labors to reveal the sea change he has undergone as a result of his investigations. His rhetorical excesses thus index the rigor—rather than the laxity—of his method
Caught unawares inside Partyknife, unsuspecting readers may ask with Emerson, “Where do we find ourselves?” Instead of Stevens’ Yucatan, Magers directs his attention to the lowbrow hideouts of highbrows-to-be, or anywhere NYU students (who play anonymous cameo roles in these pages) go in the off-Washington Square hours. To find the language and the emotion of such places is to inhabit the contemporary equivalent of the opium dens, brothels, and dingy apartments of Les Fleurs du Mal, of which Partyknife is a late-born twin, and to articulate what Baudelaire called “la mémoire du présent.”
So let Magers be Baudelaire, and Partyknife a few petit poémes in a slang-riven verse that conjures spleen by cycling between desire and contempt, self-aggrandizement and self-pity. Replace the latter’s prostitutes with undergraduates and the twilit pre-Haussmann Paris of yore with the “New York sensibility / of 2003, before the beginning of / the complete regret of memory.” Instead of semblabes and freres, the poet and reader are a couple of “D00D BROS” who wear velvet blazers to the apocalypse and, like Baudelaire, justify everything they can do and lament everything they can’t. A French proverb gives one of the early poems in the collection its title, “All Tastes are in Nature”; the piece juxtaposes a sexual revenge fantasy with an evocative and raucous piece of self-observation offered up as support for a universal pronouncement:
Sometimes I think that I’m doing all this cross training
so I can do more cocaine.
On the treadmill, running-from-the-cops-speed,
and I hold it there for two straight minutes.
Everything that feels good is good.
For a while at least, the denizens of Magers’ underworld, including his speaker, do have a lot of fun doing “everything that feels good.” And these poems elicit varieties of laughter we’re not used to finding in poetry outside of, say, Khlebnikov, whose “Invocation of Laughter” indexes a few of the varieties on display in the often riotous Partyknife. We have, for example, wry, vintage-themed laughery (“A city with the population of Morrissey albums sold”), the laughterhood of drugs and its paraphernalia (“And I was very listening. I was very high.”), portmanteau laughsmanship (“Chaka Khan or Jacques Lacan? / Heidegger or Rah Digga?,”) belaughable blue at its most self-abasing (“We were not fuck buddies. We were not even buddies. // We were just fucks.”), and this laugherously unclassifiable gem: “Technically, the dumpster in back is part of the Whitney.”
All of which isn’t to say that Partyknife is simply a congeries of one-off one liners for one’s toilet-reading pleasure. Epigrammatic, end-stopped, and strung together more often by moody association than by narrative sequence, even at their most funny Magers’ poems form not jokes, but joke-making poems. Moods of shame, anger, regret, and envy live between the poems’ double-spaced lines like the after-images or hangovers of their excess.
That is, if some of Magers’ writing feels like the lowest form of humor—and there are places in Partyknife where even the most intrepid (read: shameless) of readers stands before the Rubicon of his ethical squeamishness and hesitates to cross—Magers shows that even “D00D BROS” face the music. All this deviance in both content and form—his speaker’s sexual impropriety and his text-as-mixtape meandering—portends a reckoning. The gravity of the poems’ endings often leverages the levity of their beginnings. In “Suicide Girls,” for instance, hyperbolic self-aggrandizement and the real or fancied fulfillment of perverse desire leads to a vehement rebuke by nature itself:
Two ladies writhe around in my desire.
It feels good.
Emotionally available partners line up for my spirit.
My phone is ringing off the hook.
And someday I’ll be murdered by my Filipina love bride,
who escapes with tens of dollars.
Crying is just nature’s way of saying you’re wrong.
In Yeats’ classic depiction of the destructive nature of masculine desire, “Leda and the Swan,” Zeus’s unleashed sexual prowess foreshadows “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, / And Agamemnon dead.” Magers’ poems, on the other hand, preserve the distance between desire and its object. This desire is unleashed but more often than not unconsummated. Paradoxically, the failure of desire possesses a retributive power. Rejection, abjection, and death by self-harm can engender not only humor but also pity, awe, and fear. And by these new stripes, then, are the wounds inflicted by desire’s failure healed. Some of the last lines of the book intone, “Everything I hated has become my life now. / By which I mean how happy I am.”
Magers repeatedly shows that for all his immaturity, he knows better. And often, this knowledge makes significant revisions to the poetic forms that desperately need it. When Magers revels in the threats of the traditional carpe diem poem without wasting time on their traditionally tender prolegomena, it’s clearly critique. Where Herrick, in “Corinna’s Going a Maying” conjures “The dew bespangling herb and tree,” Magers depicts an “anal slave love parade,” as if to suggest with a sidelong glance that a “generation of men” has long known slavish love to be the subject and object of their verse romance. All of which returns us to the central question. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Is there an ethic in the midst of this irony? Beyond the scornworthy actual, does Magers present a poetics, in Adrienne Rich’s phrase, of the possible?
Yes, if we look in the right place. Like Damocles’ sword hanging over feasting revelers, Magers’ atmosphere, in all its triumphant and self-deprecating comedy, is infused with a particulate matter that casts dark shadows on the obvious distance between the speaker’s statements and the reality of his situation. It’s this distance, rather than the objects or situations punctuating it, that deserves our attention. Which is another way of saying that Partyknife isn’t a book about irony, but a book about cosmic irony.
Cosmic irony describes the grave realization that every worldly effort falls short by an immutable and inexorable law. That every intention suffers an inevitable (and sometimes serendipitous) drift at the hands of its own executing. Here’s cosmic irony at work in Magers, when the effect of desiring change isn’t change but a lingering memory of dissatisfaction: “A night / I wanted changed will have forgotten / how to, leaving only that I wanted something else.” Or again, the possibility of an ideal ensures its unreachability: “That there is a perfect beauty / reveals the fact that you can never get it right again” (43). The use of good old-fashioned detached irony, of the kind that proliferates here, is thus especially appropriate for mocking those whose arrogance leads them to doubt the principle of cosmic irony and count reality as the just dessert of effort. When Magers writes, “I am an expert in my field, and I receive the perfect pay for my expertise,” he’s being ironic about a failure of cosmic irony. As the speaker adds, just in case we weren’t catching on, “Now you know the perversity of the situation” (27). The knife of Partyknife lurks in the dark for this particular perversity. It attaches to those who arrogantly claim more control over reality than can possibly be exerted, and to those who live by exploiting this lie, namely the purveyors of popular culture:
For a while, every commercial film in the United States
ended to the patter of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,”
hoariest of boomer songs.
If “all of that is over now,” it’s in part the achievement of voices like Magers’—not that a cosmic ironist would ever accept the compliment. For a book that excels at insouciance, it’s really the vigilance of Partyknife, its key of attunement to the infinite varieties of such hypocrisy, that really, um, reaches out from the inside.