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Jan/Feb 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Langan, BlazeVOX... and a sense of the comical?

Meet Me at the Happy Bar
Steve Langan.
BlazeVOX. 2009. 76 pp.
ISBN 978-1935402534.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Steve Langan's second book of poetry, Meet Me at the Happy Bar, is generally "Elliptical" in style. Steven Burt's now (in)famous description, in a 1999 essay on the style, fits most of the poems to a tittle:

Elliptical Poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded back story; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities (in one or more "I" per poem), but they suspect the I's they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how [a] little can go a long way. Elliptics seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don't believe in, or seek, a judicious tone...

Nearly all of the poets originally described by Burt, and others, as Elliptical, have since moved on to other modes. But the potential for freshness, that Ellipticism offers, remains.

It seems that writing program instructors are finally becoming aware that Confessional poetry (recently declared a subgenre of the "School of Quietude") has grown rather long in the tooth. Their students are anxious for more challenging adventures. The programs have had some ten years to vet Ellipticism and have judged it to be domesticable. As the result, a trickle of new MFA poets have emerged to replenish the ranks of the Ellipticals.

At the same time, the improvement of desktop publishing programs has resulted in a flood of small publishing houses. So many, in fact, that presses such as Fence and BlazeVOX, which somehow manage to claw their way to a level of prominence, begin to vie with venerable small houses and the smaller university presses, appearing on more and more curricula vitae.

By virtue of all of this, Steve Langan is something of an exemplar of the reasonably successful new generation MFA. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop where he received a reasonably prestigious Paul Engle Postgraduate Fellowship. His first book, Freeze (2001), was accepted for publication in Western Michigan University's reasonably prestigious New Issues first book series.

The poems of Langan's Meet You at the Happy Bar have appeared in august academic journals previously considered the sole domain of the "School of Quietude" (The Iowa Review, The Nebraska Review, Notre Dame Review, etc.) as well as the popular venues of the new "post-avant" poetry. His book is a feather in the cap of Geoffrey Gatza's BlazeVOX press and BlazeVOX—an energetic, edgy, up and coming publisher—is a feather in his. He has now published two volumes of poetry with meaningful presses.

The poems of Meet Me at the Happy Bar do all of the right things in order to succeed as Elliptical poetry. Each "swerves away from a never-quite-unfolded back story," is manic and is sprinkled with "rusting ventriloquists," "tergiversation" and the like. They are lyrical while rejecting all of the traditional machinery of the lyric:

—The sexual flowered. I took her in my arms
back by the radiator. It was that easy then?

The question at the end of these lines provides the kind of oblique turn that suggests that all is memory, soon enough, leaving both past and present dubitable. Change the question mark to a period and all reason for lingering over the lines is gone: they're just standard fare with a bathetic reference to a radiator.

Curiously placed em-dashes and long and/or ambiguous passages punctuated with question marks are regular components of Langan's machinery. The latter, in particular, describes his most consistently effective tropes. Question marks even appear in one of the nicer images in the volume:

and her eyes: two question marks aspiring
to be commands.

More often than not, however, the questions involved either suggest a powerful tendency toward the obsessive or replies to off-stage comments the gist of which the reader is left to guess (or both).

Among collages of double-spaced sentences often bereft of subject and verb, in Meet Me at the Happy Bar, Langan intersperses poems in which the mania has organized its thoughts in a bit of bizarre but recognizable ratiocination. A group of three Orpheus poems (among the best in the book) could almost be labeled "retro," and a handful of others "fractured but not through any attempt to reach escape velocity":

"What I hear is the therapy's working,"

said Ivan, and I don't want him carted off
to the gulag for thinking then saying it,
the smiling wincer, the wincing smiler

from the Monday evening group,
because maybe I have settled into the dull logic
of peace and love, finally, just maybe.

He could even be accused, in some of these instances, of indulging in insight.

All of this said, a reviewer, after reading Meet Me at the Happy Bar several times, might find himself asking the question "Why is this a reasonably successful book?" Why isn't it the kind of success that assures that Langan's name will be cited as among the brightest of the new generation of Elliptical poets? The guy obviously has talent.

The poem in which Ivan and "Monday evening group" appear ("Great Joy") begins:

And even, at times, great joy,
Repeats the trained parakeet.
Somebody please behead the little monster.

They may not be the funniest lines ever written but they are arguably the funniest in the book. In their better poems, on the other hand, a Ben Lerner or Matthea Harvey (acknowledged paragons of the Elliptical style although Harvey may be mislabeled) simply do this far more often and better.

Lerner's The Lichtenberg Figures, in particular, is flat out hilarious. Its poems excoriate us to reveal our fragmentation, and the slapped together quality of the rationalizations by which we survive, with a fierce sense of humor. In it, Lerner pillories us—and his selves for being trapped right along with us.

The best of the Elliptical poets have a pervasive sense of the comical nature of our situation. It saves the fragmentation, the discontinuity, the mania of their poems from being merely fragmentation, discontinuity and mania. Steve Langan's Meet Me at the Happy Bar is a solid effort which seems to be deficient in only this comical sense.

 

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