Review by Martin Abramson
CHILD SINGS IN THE WOMB
By Patrick Lawler.
Bitter Oleander Press, New York
$18.00, 136 pp, Paper
By permission of Book/Mark Quarterly.
Mr. Lawler’s poetry is endlessly, complexly, multiversely evocative. All of which may or may not amount to greatness; but which, to this writer, rates far higher than a good deal of modern poetry considered great by authors and their cliques.
The work is a Joycean pastiche of images, suggestions, implications, impulses, jokes and wordplay that serve as a bright gloss over dark engravings. The titles tell half the story: Man Killed by Static Cling, Dead Couple Wed at Their Funeral, Sweethearts Vanish in Tunnel of Love, Woman Receives Letter from Joan of Arc, Preacher Explodes during Sermon and so on. Funny titles. Serious poems.
Mr. Lawler’s topics run from the Greek philosophers through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to theoretical physics and hit a great many heavy topics along the way. Aside from the Kierkegaard-Nietzsche letters, Dear Bose-Einstein Condensate is the strongest piece of the collection. The slowing of thoughts in his mother’s Alzheimer’s frozen mind is compared to the slowing of light in the condensate (a state of matter cooled to near absolute zero). The mother’s mental lethargy is contrasted with the chaos of thoughts in the speaker’s brain “…when the head is overly full of memories, / and they push against the inner walls of the skull, / and they keep pushing until they dent the head, until they pop/ it out like a banged kettle.”
The observation that all the cells of our bodies are replaced at regular intervals, fuels a running gag in which the author assumes the personae of noted poets: “I changed my name to Robert Bly” “I changed my name to Mark Strand” I didn’t tell you I changed my name to Adrienne Rich,” “Just ignore the W.S.Merwin name tag.” But the personality disorder is clear: “My Inner Child was adopted by a dysfunctional family.” “I am part cracked mask, part rearing horse, part whittled flute.” “In group therapy, I look around/ and I am alone”
I feel like a tightrope walker. Oh, I have a net. That’s not the problem. What
I’m missing is the rope.
And interspersed with all this are the author’s sexual fantasies centering on an unnamed woman whom he never gets around to approaching: “Sex will shake us to our erotic roots. Fire will spill from our openings.”
In the longest effort of this collection, Dear Neitszche/ Love Kierkegaard, Mr. Lawler regales us with a sequence of letters from K to N filled with philosophical allusions: “Fear and Mumbling” “You give them Eternal Recurrence, and they say, ‘Haven’t we heard that before?’” “Oh Fred, you are so silly. Doing your death-thing with Divinity” “I am in the middle of writing the definitive book. Possible titles: Neither/Nor; Both/And.” “Berkeley was there. Kept bumping into furniture.” “Out of emptiness we emerge into new emptiness.” Which is apropos of a line from another poem, Dear Blank:
“Blank is to blank as blank is to blank.”
N’s cursive according to K: “Your script is blotchy. Big cloudy pieces of ink like a coming storm“
There’s plenty of verbo-philosophical slapstick: “I tell you Zeno isn’t going anywhere.” “Get Uber it, I say.” “One of us is named Sisyphus, and one of us is named Stone.” “I’m not just another pretty word.” “I used to dance for the Army at military funerals, / I was a tap dancer.” You get the idea.
The first part of the book consists of poems in the same vein except that they are set up to stretch from margin to margin with large gaps between words and phrases. A nod to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, I suppose. I find the form distracting, but I guess I’m too ‘old school’ to appreciate it. There are also playful typographical variations of cases and the idiosyncratic convention of beginning each title with the word “dear”.
A dessert of delicious humor ends the book in the form of another epistolary poem wherein the author banters emails with a Nigerian internet scammer who is trying to get his bank account number. Addressing him as, “Dearest Akeem,” Mr. Lawler maunders on about his own dead father, his psychotic student, his girlfriends, God, and, ironically, the pleasure he anticipates in spending the $475,000 Akeem will be paying him for keeping Akeem’s $9.5 million in his personal account. A humane but barbed put-on of an online criminal.
Patrick Lawler serves up steak, caviar and popcorn; all cooked to a turn, in this elegant collection. The underlying themes of desperation, disorientation and mental breakdown preclude enjoyment of the humor unclouded by sorrow and regret; but the voracious reader comes away from Child Sings in the Womb feeling well fed indeed.