Review by Alessandro Porco.
In his debut collection of poetry, Every Inadequate Name, Nick Thran’s is at its best when his poem’s speaker’s emotional transparency is honest enough to admit complicity; he’s flawed and guilty, young and frivolous — that is to say, too human for living yet just perfect for poetry. Conversely, the collection is at its worst when the poem’s speaker participates only in his capacity as a moralizing spectator, resulting in off-putting poems quietly dictated from the sidelines. Perhaps these are the inevitable two faces of a romantic like Thran. Where one goes, the other follows. Surely, there are other poems that fall somewhere in between, but they are for some other review to take up and defend.
In the case of the former, that is, emotional transparency, there are startling admissions of solipsism, as in “That Lobster Has Been There Forever,” the collection’s opening poem; the speaker states, “I’ve never wept in a twentieth-century / building for anything other / than my own lost loves and friends” (13). The speaker recognizes, with some embarrassment and fear, how the sort of self-involvement that leads to such an admission is the very sort of self-involvement that led to the atrocities of the twentieth-century that deserve to be “wept” for. Accordingly, in the poem’s proceeding line, he begs: “Please, don’t tell the architects” (13). The four succinct lines quoted would have themselves make a powerful poem. (Their potency is, unfortunately, diluted by what follows in the poem.) Other effective examples of this tenor of honesty and complicity abound. In “How Pop Sounds,” a very touching ode to pop music’s ability to permeate our lives, the speaker writes of “how your first time lasted exactly / two minutes and thirteen seconds — the perfect length, you thought” (14). So, the speaker knows he was once an inconsiderate lover. Of course, implied, also, is that the speaker’s only understanding of what would make the sexual experience “perfect” is entirely dependent upon a pop music epistemology. (The perfect pop song is “two-minutes and thirteen seconds.”) This is an important point: the speaker is willing to allow into his nostalgia (”This is about falling in love / with something dated” ) one of two things, or perhaps both: one, a defect of that which he so much wishes to defend (Pop’s “sugar”-coated representations of the world-at-large); two, his own prejudice as a listener, desperate to extract practical value from a genre that may be anything but practical and, thus, to confer upon it the aura of Art or artfulness. (Also of interest, “How Pop Sounds” ends with a subtle and effective allusion to Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.”)
Another poem of the first-type I am describing is “The Bear Claw Tub.” “Old fashioned, dragging its bloat porcelain / across the linoleum floor,” begins the poem (25). From there on in, from sentence to sentence, the short-poem’s speaker attempts to figure and re-figure the title tub in his and our imaginations, respectively. The tub is, among other things, “a mythological creature” and “the sort of place suicides happen / in movies, or where murder victims are found” (25). Yet balancing these more public figurations are the private or personalized ones: “it was where I entered to let off steam” and “[it was] best on nights / I’d return home stinking, sweating, having / hurt who I loved most” (25). By accumulating various versions of the tub, associative connections are allowed to be made from sentence to sentence. How has the speaker “hurt” his lover? Is he no different than a murderer? Has he inspired a suicide? Such questions are suggestive and cast a rather stirring pall over the poem. One final example: in “Seriously, It Was the Biggest Cricket,” the speaker critiques, with comic irony, his younger-self’s rather Olympian-like ability to be shallow (”seriously, she / was the hottest” ) and equally Olympiam-like inability to be discerning: “seriously, it [love] felt like the real thing” (33) — not coincidentally, said feeling is inspired by a “gorgeous backpacker / who speaks fluent Italian, [and ] recites whole blocks / of the Inferno aloud” (32-33).
On the other hand, there are those speaker-as-spectator poems I mentioned at the start — “Azucar” and “Monday in the World of Beauty” — that, as suggested, tend towards an off-putting moralizing. In “Azucar,” the speaker tells the story of his mother’s timely intervention into a domestic-abuse situation in a nearby apartment:
Neither of us really knew what was up
until an open-palm blow
broke the language barrier, and Mother,
who tries hard to do good in this world,
banged on their door till it opened
enough for her to ask
in a friendly, foreign voice
the Spanish word for sugar
she’d made a point to learn before bastard,
and asshole, leave her alone.
It’s those last lines, in particular, that offend my sensibility. The speaker and his mother (the former a ventriloquist for the latter) are, metaphorically speaking, tourists, merely visiting the language (”It has been a struggle, Mother meant trying / to learn Spanish”) and, correspondingly, the poem’s apartment of violence. It’s a convenient, bourgeois position for the speaker to occupy. There is no real investment; no involvement; no immersion — that is, there is no getting to know the asshole in question. Instead, the asshole functions as a flat, two-dimensional character that enables the speaker to reify, in the form of the poem, his own as well as his mother’s righteousness. I’m just not convinced — and never have been — that poetry is the place of such righteousness, especially considering it’s of the sort one is likely to find more well-done in a W-Network Movie-of-the-Week. The poem “Monday in the World of Beauty” includes a similarly distasteful moralizing: the speaker, speculating as to the “whereabouts” of an abused hair-stylist’s “significant [other],” suggests
he's probably hovering like thick cloudover a cocktail umbrella inside some peelerwhere even flesh can't light the room.
Allow me to parse the logic here: Strip-clubs are venues empty of significant meaning (”even flesh can’t light the room”) ergo the moral darkness of such places engender the stylist’s “black eye” (a symbol of moral darkness i.e. the absence of light) ergo bad, abusive men frequent strip-clubs ergo strip-clubs are bad ergo aren’t I a good poet for pointing this out. The articulation of such a position may be correct — who knows! — but it doesn’t make for interesting poetry.
Stylistically, Thran’s strong point is the construction of the prosaic vignette. It’s enviable. Therein, you will find a functional simile or two. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with formal innovation; there is no linguistic panache — I don’t say this as a critique (in the negative) but rather as a point of fact. (The sole exception is the poem “Bloor Street,” which plays with the morphemic construction of the word.) His rhythms are unassuming, doing nothing to carry the meaning of a poem. His descriptions tend towards a hokey romanticism. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Thran’s collection isn’t exactly what I would refer to as “literate” or, more accurately, explicitly steeped in Tradition — it’s presentation is disarmingly naive and, at times, even simple. A welcome change of pace. Perhaps this is indicative of that aforementioned pop sensibility. (Though, of that very generic classification, I would say that no poem in the collection has that timeless “pop” quality Thran so admires.)
Alessandro Porco’s first collection of poetry, The Jill Kelly Poems, is published by ECW Press (2005). Currently, Porco attends the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is completing a doctorate on Hip-Hop Poetics. A second collection of poetry, titled Augustine in Carthage, is forthcoming from ECW Press in the spring of 2008.