What We’re Reading: How to Dance as the Roof Caves In
Nick Lantz’s extraordinary new book, How to Dance as the Roof Caves In, is out this month from Graywolf Press. Lantz’s third collection is a direct, honest, sometimes satirical and darkly humorous examination of relationships, foreclosures, housing bubbles, and the shifting dynamic of the “American Dream”—or what’s left of it.
The poems in this book are forthright and concise; Lantz didn’t come here to pen any sweeping odes. Instead, he uses accessible, colloquial language and a loose poetic form to create poems that readily open themselves up to their readers. In fact, parts of the book read more like a narrative than a collection of poems, which makes for a quick and digestible read.
That said, there is nothing simple about these poems. Nearly everything here is subtly complex and emotive. The signature themes of the book are altogether real and relatable—almost painfully so—and are crafted with a wit and agility that Lantz has mastered. His poems weave together his profound observations with the banal happenings of our ordinary lives, which in turn makes for a book that many—if not all—readers will feel an intrinsic connection with.
The themes central to this collection might seem outwardly mundane or otherwise un-poetic: job loss, illness, clogged pipes, taking out the garbage, foreclosure, divorce. But somehow, in the midst of all this, Lantz finds inspiration for some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve read. In “Hawk and Rabbit,” he writes,
You see a truck with “James Tate Plumbing”
stenciled on its side panel, and you imagine
the eponymous plumber
elbow deep in a drain, coming up not with a fist
of hair but snow globes of Pompeii, the jawbone
of an ass, the endless red ribbon
of a rabbit’s intestine, the half-darkness
of our bedroom when
the shades are drawn.
That’s the writing style and language that we find throughout much of the book; understated, concise and jaw-droppingly beautiful. He does it again in “How to Appreciate Inorganic Matter.” The poem starts with the speaker clipping his toenails, of all things, and thinking about the “cruel teeth of dinosaurs” that have now shrunk into “the bills of ducks and finches,” which segues into a scene of a visit with an elderly father—a man who is a “tyrant with all the tyranny siphoned out.” The poem ends with this gorgeous and believable verse:
We didn’t see your father again. We checked out
of the hotel with the little red light
on the phone
still blinking, and only later wondered
if the next occupant
would pick up that phone, thinking the message
was for him, and hear your father rambling on
about leftovers in the fridge, the neighborhood boys
he can’t tell apart, or how all day he sweeps
his driveway, how the leaves, those goddamn leaves,
The book is sectioned into three parts. The middle section is one long poem called “How to Stage a Community” that is made up of 19 individual segments. It hinges around a couple, hired as part of a larger group, to subsist in an empty housing development and thus give investors and buyers the impression that the homes are inhabited. This is the section of the book that reads most like a narrative, and the reader finds themselves wandering through the speaker’s surreal landscape of neurotically washed cars and out-of-work actors manicuring lawns that aren’t really theirs; “You live here, but you do not live here./The lawn is your lawn, but it is not your lawn.” It is a searing tale about what has become the new normal for many Americans—especially those of late Gen X and early Gen Y, of which I suspect the speaker of this poem to be a part. It’s a new normal where nothing is gained or owned, nearly all are falling far short of the worldly checklist adhered to by their parents, and expectations for the future often feel transient and rickety. Section 9, “Is There a Problem Here,” serves as an apt summarization of this shifting landscape and sense of loss, and reads, in part,
We eat ramen noodles dry. […] We write This is an adventure on our back window with soap. We write Behold and Just divorced and our old, disconnected phone number, and we pray that it still rings somewhere, that someone picks up and says Hello from inside a kitchen that is noisy with laughter and wine and steam from a pot of pasta just dumped in a sieve in the sink…we think we can hear the water…trickling into the pipes below the house, deep into the earth where we must be living now because when we wake up it is always dark and noisy and close…
But, despite the cynicism found in much of the material, there is plenty of hope in this book. “How to Properly Fold and Insert a Letter into an Envelope,” a poem about a strained relationship, ends with
At night the smoke detector in our apartment
goes off for no reason. And who remembers
what I said
or what you said? When we wake
to its shrill proclamations, it’s only
us, standing in our worn-out underwear, scared
Or, in visiting “Hawk and Rabbit” again, Lantz writes,
The bus stop shaman claims man has not one
soul but many. A soul
for drinking wine. A soul for kissing,
for laughing. A soul for taking out
the garbage. A soul for peeling apples
at the sink, for losing utility bills.
[…] A soul for sucking a blackberry-stained finger
until the stain is gone.
So, in other words, maybe this is Lantz pointing out to us that, despite loss, cynicism, economic collapse, burst housing bubbles and the like, if we can just hold onto our soul for kissing, our soul for laughing, and our soul for sucking the blackberry juice off our fingers; if we can learn to accept worn-out undergarments and apartments in place of houses, then the new American Dream might look different—but it’ll be just fine.