What We’re Reading: The Other Poems
A dozen poems into Paul Legault’s second collection of poems, The Other Poems (Fence Books, 2011), a character named Ginger says, “Stairs always lead to more stairs. / Enough stairs make a house.” Ginger is one of hundreds of characters who show up in Legault’s collection of 75 “sonnets,” so if there’s any truth to Ginger’s statement then surely enough characters make a book. And with this many characters, the book is an energetic romp through the absurd.
A Legaultian sonnet consists of the standard 14 lines, but abstains from meter and rhyme in favor of voices that speak to and comment on one another, and sometimes don’t seem to interact at all. These voices are anything from animals to people, objects to abstract ideas, all clamoring to be taken seriously, or at least heard. The poems open with a couplet, followed by four lines of dialogue, the last of which stretches into the next three lines, as in “Worst Christmas”:
Until the industrial revolution,
some animals were hitherto unknown.
DOG: I’ve never been to Atlantic City.
CAT: I’ve been to Catlantic City.
DOG: Oh, how is it?
CAT: You’re not invited.
I’ve heard people die. I’ve heard
the moon has a French lisp
and a thick dart and a pillow and some pockets.
The remaining five lines contain another three lines of dialogue, the last voice delivering an easy aphorism, botched epiphany, or legitimate bit of wisdom. Here’s how “Worst Christmas” ends:
AUTUMN: How many pockets?
CAT: There are at least two.
THE MOON: Count again.
What were we drinking when they told us:
you don’t need a gun in August?
Not all of the poems contain such a straightforward back and forth dialogue as this one does, but all of them begin and end in the same cryptic way, with the rest of the text bouncing around in the middle trying to make sense of it all.
Naturally, rules are made to be broken, and Legault breaks his own rules in spectacular and entertaining fashion, sometimes letting one voice take over a poem, other times giving a line over to stage directions or silence. “Seventh Grade is for Losers” contains this bit of dialogue:
SILENCE: What color am I?
GOLD: I want to be for cash
the way cash is for me.
The white space on the page between the two lines of dialogue is delightfully jarring to come across after so much talk. Other poems in The Other Poems contain too many lines, and one poem’s title is so long it’s almost a poem in itself. “Circular Breathing,” one of the later and most compelling poems in the collection, would read almost the same whether or not it was split into dialogue. Each of the lines begins with the same two words—“same old”—until the last line. The final couplet reads, “Same old being old / when you’re an old person.”
All forms come with their detriments, however, and the Legaultian sonnet is no different. So many lines of dialogue force lines to be clipped and simple, which means a complete syntactic phrase rarely, if ever, stretches more than four lines. (This seems to be a Legault trademark—his most recent book, An Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeny’s Books, 2012), offers English-to-English translations of all 1,789 of Dickinson’s poems, the majority of which are one to three lines long.) In less sure hands, the short sentences would feel easy and boring, but Legault is savvy enough to shuffle in new tricks and surprising turns of phrase to keep the reader engaged. One stunning couplet spans over six decades and, it is inferred, hundreds of miles in the space of a single line break: “I wanted a sister when I was younger, / now she’s sixty-four in Arkansas.” Dizzying leaps of distance and image abound throughout Legault’s poems, insuring that the energy never wavers, it simply shifts and unfolds.
Legault is an exciting poet working on fascinating projects, and The Other Poems displays the strength of his poetic muscle. After reimagining the sonnet, Legault could have called it a day, but he chose to keep going, reinventing his own form again and again. Including his first collection of poems, The Madeline Poems (Omnidawn, 2009), Legault has published three books in four years. If his pace holds, we’re in for a wild ride in the coming years.