Standing in Line for the Beast
New Issues Press, $14 (paper)

Pain Fantasy
Red Morning Press, $12 (paper)

both by Jason Bredle

Reading Jason Bredle’s two full-length books is like engaging in a hysterical, witty, confusing, irritating, and rather one-sided conversation: these are poems that display a restless verbal energy that is entertaining and occasionally exhausting. Pop culture detritus abounds, as do narrative, visual, and tonal juxtapositions reminiscent of those found in the works of other chatty and slightly surreal contemporary poets. Bredle pushes the style in his own direction, as with the poem “Horse for President,” which reads (unsurprisingly, given the title) like a press release from a horse announcing its candidacy for president. Said horse claims, among other things, to have been the victim of a conspiracy when he was caught skimming money and, later, sexually assaulting a chicken. There is an intentionally tin-eared bombast running throughout these books, a grandstanding that deflates itself in the absurdity of the conceits. Bredle himself provides a worthwhile explanation of the style in “The Classic Story”: “these are the days of our post-whimsical, / neo-absurdist lives, in which our goal / has become surviving each hour without / breaking down publicly.” The success of many of these poems rests on Bredle’s ability to find these occasional plateaus in the chaos, where he can let something human sneak through. For instance, in a poem about Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X-rays, the poet supposes asking the scientist “why he leapt so blindly into the swirling unknown,” then imagines “he’ll say he just couldn’t take it anymore.” A similar turn comes at the end of “So Everybody Wants to Know Where You Go When You Die.” The poem natters on for fifty lines, cartoonishly describing creatures on a farm (the farmer included) racing and riding one another toward the sound of a dinner bell, all wacky, repetitive fun, and hyperventilation-inducing lines, until “this winter, we’ll sell/our farm to Wal-Mart.” The speaker imagines himself standing in the store, “near mitts in sporting goods,” remembering the sound of his wife “yelling come and get it into the deep blue gloaming / of our forever encroaching darkness.” This sad and sudden reverie may legitimize the wind-up—When we die we go to Wal-Mart?!—or else it does not. But the payoff is usually worth the hijinks, because one always gets the sense of something desperate at stake just beneath the surface of the poems. Among the best poems of the two books is “On the Way to the 53-B District Court of Livingston County, October 1, 1999.” The poem organizes itself around the simple repetition, “It begins,” which allows Bredle to push the poem wherever his imagination takes him. “It begins while eating something extremely / erotic.” Or: “It begins with / $148.77 worth of phone calls.” And later: “No, no. Scratch all that. It begins / when a gray cat walks into your house and falls / asleep on a green jacket.” The accumulation of odd and novel narrative fragments eventually creates a cohesive and heartbreaking whole. That the poem never reveals what that mysterious “it” is proves a wise decision, allowing the reader room to fill in the gaps, though in its final lines the poem assures us that “It begins / when you see over a dozen swans swimming / toward you, and it never ends.” Some readers may not have the patience to wade through the verbal pratfalls that litter these two books, let alone their predilection for diarrhea as a subject. And Bredle doesn’t always hit the mark satisfactorily, though this seems more a forgivable willingness to fail while trying than an actual failure. Occasionally, these poems can be devastating. More often, they make for strange and memorable company.