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The Only Relevant Thing

By (March 1, 2015) No Comment

American ChewAmericanChew
By Matthew Lippman
Burnside Review Press, 2013

If Matthew Lippman’s American Chew were a meal, it would be steak and potatoes, something rich and filling. Or maybe it would be a crockpot full of brisket and broccoli, simmering slow and spicy. Or maybe it would be a couple of burgers from McDonalds, which the poet himself describes as “good American junk.”

The first title from Portland, Oregon-based Burnside Review Press, and the third of Lippman’s books, American Chew is balanced on the knife-edge between humor and solemnity, promise and despair. The main trope at play is food: what we eat, why we eat it, and all the various implications of its necessity. This ostensible subject matter is often stated in the titles to his poems—“Spinach,” “Big Mac Bun,” “She Pork Pie Hat,” “In The Broccoli Shop.” Clearly, food is central to this collection, but more often than not it serves as a vehicle for more meaningful conversations about such issues as race, sexuality, death and aging, and the difficulties of parenting and marriage.

American Chew is an easy read, but that’s not to say Lippman doesn’t challenge. He knows how to be funny but not too funny, not too quirky as to lose what’s at stake, like in the poem “Baby Fat”:

When high school is over most people get fat.
I got fat in
high school. The math teacher told me
there was nothing I could do, algebraically,
about the girth.
My social studies teacher wished me luck
. . . .
I couldn’t figure if they were being mean or just a bunch of realists.

Lippman is an intelligent poet, capable of astonishing imaginative range within this basic conceptual framework, while still scaffolding his poems with sufficient emotional weight. The voice is very down-to-earth and open, like a film or television program that invites its viewers in from the first frame. In fact, this is just the effect Lippman aims for. In a 2010 interview with Bookslut, he remarked, “The components of a television show/commercial and a poem are actually quite alike: quick cuts, leaps, humor, drama, witty dialogue. The best poems and the best television are doing the same thing.” His voice is casual, but not careless, wry but learned and charismatic at the same time. The speaker is always doing something (usually cooking) or going somewhere (usually picking up or dropping off his kids). This kind of behind-the-scenes action makes his poems brisk and intelligible. He has a breathy line, long and almost Whitmanesque, but situated squarely in the twenty-first century.

The titular, opening poem gets things rolling in a good way. Lippman begins his collection with this animalistic scene:

I wanted to be a man who pushed the steer in as a steer
then hauled it out
as a t-bone, a rack of ribs,
a half a pound of ground beef.
. . . .
to pull me out a rainbow trout, filet the sucker, toss it over an open grill
and chow.

It is an ambitious fantasy, of sorts. He wonders what it would be like to “smell the blood, taste the fat, finger the guts.” It is visceral, in the way you would expect a poem about meat (and its accoutrement) to be. He weighs the various pros and cons of a visit to Whole Foods versus the way “those wide-eyed / Davey Crockett type trappers did it.” It’s a proper meditation on the simplest of subjects, food, something that is supposed to be life-sustaining yet flavorful at the same time.

And yet there’s a certain discord at the end of the poem. As the speaker wrestles with the effects of not being able to raise and slaughter his own stock, there is a progression of interjections with which Lippman chooses to begin his lines—“now,” “later,” “so”—as if the speaker is deliberating with himself, slowly coming to a decision. These utterances give a ponderous feel to the direction of the poem, and make the conclusion authentic: that he is not satisfied with his place in a consumerist American culture, but he hardly has the power to do anything about it. Notice that the quote above is in past tense, he wanted to be the man to fend for himself, but that is now impossible in the world as he knows it:

Now, I can’t even imagine putting a seed in the earth.
I can’t fathom a day when I might cast a line into the Wallkill River
. . . .
Now, I love the supermarket
. . . .
The Whole Foods destroys my manhood or any desire I might ever have had
to be that kind of butcher, that baker, that sweet dick willy wagoneer.

salamijewThe speaker’s ambition deflates as the poem goes on, and his enthusiasm gives way to resignation. His diction is firmly planted in the American idiom and cultural milieu, but for which the speaker must forfeit his manhood. The “American chew” that Lippman encounters ends up being the gristle that he must accept and deal with as the common American experience. Eventually, in one of the latter poems of the book, the speaker returns to this trope and admits, “I don’t like meat. I don’t like slaughter, / and I’m afraid of the whole sweetheart human race.”

This dissatisfaction with contemporary American life drives many of Lippman’s poems. In “Youtubing It” and “Life During Blogtime,” the speaker ponders the merits of procrastinating by watching Internet videos all day or feeling “spent, blog-whipped and wet” from trying to keep up with all of the happenings in the blogosphere. There is a kind of playful disorientation going on
in these poems, in which the speaker contorts a seemingly familiar object into something bizarre or fetishized (as he does expertly in the Youtube poem) and thereby subverts the reader’s expectations. This subversion builds steadily into a tangible despair or dejection that the reader should find easy to commiserate with.

But unbridled pessimism makes for a lousy read. Lippman knows this and counterbalances his critique of society and its crazy machinations with a more intimate subject: family life. In “Of Politics and Making a Difference,” he makes an observation that should be included in any parenting manual:

For years I have thought that the only difference is the difference you make at home,
the way you sit at the table with your elbows off the cedar at supper,
the way you politely talk to your kids
even when they stick little balls of Play Dough into the toilet,
flush the thing, then laugh, wolf-like,
as water explodes out from between the seams.

It’s a simple concept, really, but any parent will tell you that there is a dualism to domestic life, a constant oscillation between dull days and those that are frenetically exciting. Lippman’s children are recurring characters throughout the book, fuelling many of the poems and many of the speaker’s anxieties. At different times, the poet wonders how they are sleeping or what they will think of him as they grow older. One example comes from “Meaningful Beauty,” when his children,

toss their dolls out the window
then jump after them in stupid splendor and pink
laughing like the whole world is never going to sleep,
our kids who don’t sleep
and eat every stitch of pineapple and toast we put in front of them.

This scene gives the reader a picture of the happy intersection of expectancy and anxiety. The care that the parents take to feed the children seems to only fuel the hyperactive, almost manic behavior of the kids. The speaker has to reassure himself of his duties, later telling himself to just think “one day at a time.”

Lippman’s domestic meditations also include the romantic connection of husband and wife. In “Farm Poem,” he dedicates a very honest love poem to his wife, complete with subtle eroticism. He invites her to a farm to work the fields and tend the animals alongside him, to “pick ragweed and pretend / to make wine, though neither of us likes the Merlot.” What he is actually doing is inviting her to stick with him despite his faults. He says:

I know I have let you down.
I know I have manhandled the laundry and the potatoes
In the celery stalk of my bone
I know I have made for you ugly chairs and half concocted songs
from strips of tape and mold.
. . . .

join me in my nuttiness and bad hair
and I promise you all over again
that soon enough your fortunate moon will rise.

These admissions by the speaker—that, in many ways, he has been an insufficient husband—along with his charming invitation for reconciliation, is another illustration of the duality that is inherent in domestic life. In a marital relationship, there is no way to measure joy without frustration (and vice versa). Lippman gives a refreshing, realistic depiction of the aspects of wedded life that sometimes go overlooked.

Perhaps the strongest poem of the entire book is “Beastie,” an elegy for the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Lippman recalls a lie he told about owning the album Paul’s Boutique, when in reality he never had. He watches Youtube videos (again), this time remembering how Yauch was one of those people who could, “go beyond wanting to be cool / and invent cool.” But his tone takes a much more somber turn at the end of the poem, thinking about how Yauch

. . . left behind his daughter
and that’s the only thing that’s relevant.
Now his daughter can’t have breakfast with him. What is she supposed to do?
Go to the mall with no credit card and steal his records?
The last time I saw Adam Yauch he was at the playground.
His daughter was in a swing.
His hair was gray and he looked good. He sounded
even better.

newyearofyellowHaving grown up in New York City around the same time as Yauch, the rapper’s death strikes close to home for Lippman. And although he spends much of the poem painting himself as the antithesis to Yauch, the two men share at least one thing in common: a dedication to family. Lippman mentions his own daughters in several poems in the book, so it is not surprising that he concentrates this poem on Yauch’s daughter. It is a devastating poem, and one that showcases Lippman’s ability to effortlessly shift from humorous to heartrending.

Beyond the complements of domestic bliss/tragedy, Lippman draws on a number of sociopolitical topics for his poems, as well and sometimes dresses them up with titles that sound a lot more fun, such as “You Don’t Know What It’s Like When A Girl Releases An Egg” and “Only To Return As A Transistor Radio.” At other times when he makes his topic very blatant, as in “The Problem With Gay Marriage” or “Random Acts of Violence.” In any case, the speaker in these poems wrestles with many of the same issues that American citizens find themselves confronting, and the speaker gives what is sometimes an oblique political commentary. For example, in “Vitamin See Saw,” he says,

When I was a kid my grandfather sent me Prevention Magazine
to prevent me from loving girls.
I loved them anyway.
It was a catalog for discounted vitamins
. . . .
Then he lost his mind. It was all the pills

that did not one bit of good
from preventing him from beating his daughter,
losing money, bankrupting half of the Polish village he was born in,
should have died in
. . . .
That’s what vitamins will do for you,
eviscerate your body
like it was a little Polish village.

In this poem, there is a sincere desire to make an effective statement, and yet Lippman almost cannot help but meld some dark humor into his observations. Even amidst his despondency at the “vigorous steroids” that are being added to food these days, he finds room to equate taking vitamins with pogroms in Poland. It’s an off-putting simile, but one that is typical of Lippman’s satirical tones. The sardonic quality of the poem aids in exposing the hypocrisy of American consumerist culture—complete with false advertising and unmentioned side-effects. Lippman takes this same kind of approach whether talking about gay marriage, mental health, or Tea Party pundits, with equally unsettling effect.

The design of the book also deserves mention here. The cover is simple yet striking, and the book is a charming, pocket-sized 5 x 7 trim. However, all but one poem are incorrectly numbered in the Table of Contents, which certainly is not helpful for the reader, and something the editors at Burnside Review Press will hopefully remedy in future volumes.

And the text itself has ts flaws. Nearly every poem takes roughly the same form: about one and a half pages, mostly in first-person, as if each were its own dramatic monologue. There are just a few that employ any stanza breaks at all. Lippman’s humor carries much of the collection, but it can only go so far.

Glyn Maxwell, in his book On Poetry, says that a poem should “coherently express the presence of a human creature,” and in American Chew Lippman gives his readers exactly that. His poetry is idiosyncratic (in a good way) and his poems pull the reader into a world they will recognize but maybe had not measured as carefully as they thought. Lippman reminds the reader that poetry is more than a language game, and that real people still live real lives. A cogent, empathetic personality is present in American Chew, put forth in a voice that expertly blends the lyrical and narrative, something not easily said of many contemporary collections. Chewing on this collection is not enough—it ought to be read in one sitting, swallowed whole.

Adam Palumbo is a poet and critic from Annapolis, MD. He holds a BA from the University of Richmond. He has published poems, translations, essays, and reviews in Guernica, The Brooklyn Rail, PANK, The Northern Virginia Review, St. Katherine Review, and the Wilfred Owen Association Journal, among others. He is currently at work on his first collection of poetry, tentatively titled “Roots and Tides.”