Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: X by Dan Chelotti

X
by Dan Chelotti
McSweeney's
Poetry collection

Review by Alex McElroy.

Through the window above the desk where I type this review, I can see the forest surrounding my house, and horizontally bisecting that forest is a pair of telephone lines. I cannot look at the trees without seeing those lines. The image is not surprising—nor is it ecologically discouraging. It is the landscape we’re all accustomed to. Nature and industry have been fooling around for centuries. Their tumultuous affair frequently splits Americans into opposed camps—those who bike to work and recycle their Ziplocs vs. those who captain Hummers and burn their trash in rusty barrels. But the poems of Dan Chelotti’s debut collection, X, might just bridge those camps. They portray the intimate miscegenation of nature and technology we experience daily, not to make an ecological statement, but because, at the risk of redundancy, it is what we experience daily. Chelotti’s speakers put their “headphones in / to spite the birds,” they look “out over/ one of the first real gray / days of autumn listening / to a podcast in which / these two men are talking about / the phenomenon of ball lightning,” they interpret a lonesome crane (the bird) among goats as a sign to write a novel. His poems act like the window above my desk, showcasing the indefatigable beauty of nature while inside I surf the internet those telephone wires provide. This is life in America, and Chelotti captures it with an intelligent, self-conscious humor that feels true to our era.

The most apparent, and perhaps overemphasized, aspect of X is its comedy. In his blurb, Gary Shteyngart proclaims, “This poetry it makes me to laugh” (whatever that means). Shteyngart is right. X is a very funny collection. In “If You Travel Far Enough . . .” the speaker concludes, after being mistaken for a stranger and briefly playing the part, “I always thought if I met / my double I would either /have sex with it or kill it, / not be confused / with it by a gas station attendant.” In this passage humor is attained through its detail—the image of sex with oneself is endlessly amusing, at least to me—though it is not autotelic humor. The comedy is working to improve its community. It offers an unexpected beat that heightens, rather than diminishes, the sense of loss and missed opportunity expressed in the poem overall. The joke lifts us out of and then submerges us in the speaker’s endearing defeatism. Chelotti’s comedy is a greedy type of comedy, attempting to not only capture the humor, but the sadness, the loneliness, the absurdity, and the romance of life.

Hitting all those points in a single poem would be difficult for anyone, but Chelotti accomplishes the task repeatedly throughout X, most notably in poems like “The Giantess is Coming” or “Magic,” excerpted in full here:
The mechanic says
I have a great ear
for cars, but no ear
for music. I don’t ask
how he knows
or say the grease
smudges on his hands
look fake. I walk
away like one who
has three hours to kill
in a strange town
walks away. There
is a cemetery in which
I try to ignore
a headache. A phone booth
with a phonebook
but no phone. A corner
store that has only
rumors of ibuprofen.
These things happen
and I always think the universe will
show me another path.
Why do I expect magic
only when things break down?
I would love a bath—
a bath and a hamburger. 
Here, the initial humor of the mechanic’s remark quickly gives way to the speaker’s muted frustration. From there we follow the speaker as exasperation grows. Metaphor fails to generate. The speaker is not like anything else, but is stuck as what he is: “one who / has three hours to kill / in a strange town.” A cemetery leads to a headache, a phone booth fails to meet its purpose, ibuprofen turns into myth. This is the purgatory of accrued aggravation. It is everyday disappointment. And accompanying everyday disappointment is often an incredible longing for equally mundane—but at this moment transcendent—yearning for a bath and a hamburger. Appreciate the surprising intelligence of “hamburger.” The speaker doesn’t even want cheese. “Magic” wonderfully articulates the prickle of exasperation, the way small talk (no ear for music) can be understood as ridicule, and how something as simple as meat on a bun can morph into a cure for life’s disappointments.

Chelotti’s working class humor and insight is reminiscent of Bob Hicok or Mathew Dickman, though his voice still feels distinct, perhaps because of his subject matter. His poems embrace and criticize modern life with a subdued, precise vision—think Whitman slugged with a Xanax—that is primarily sympathetic, but riveting when in it dips into anger, specifically the frustrated righteousness identified with the progressive minorities of each generation: “A man rips by / on a motorcycle. / I hope he falls off. / I say that. I say that as / I watch men / set fire to the ocean / because it should be / metaphor, but it isn’t.” Those condemnations are rare, and ever more striking because they occur so infrequently. Many of the poems, like “Particular Ice” or “Lion,” for example, attempt to find beauty in the overlap between rural and urban life. Chelotti most effectively unifies those ostensibly disparate realms in his final poem, “X.” In “X,” the collection’s strongest piece, Chelotti shows equal affection for the “the man who sits in the rain” and “the bombs that replace the earth with earth,” cataloguing his love with unsentimental veracity, a sort of joie de mélancolie, simultaneously frantic, gloomy, and jubilant:
When the continents saw the earth
was eye-shaped they started drifting
apart. I fell in love. I danced again.
...
All of this is to say I love the salt,
I love the man who sits in the rain,
the small hand that seeks the lever,
the lever that shows the wall is a door.
I love those who forget the names of the trees,
those who pray to God for new dishwashers,
those who wear watches on the subway--
I love the bombs that replace the earth with earth,
I love those who sit silent in automobiles.
...
I lose faith, I remember
loving mica among the waves.
I love mothers, sons, daughters.
And father, when you get there--
say I will kneel
as the sun forgives the water
                            for being so cold.
Notice how Chelotti’s restrained exuberance is conveyed through textured enchantment, yo-yoing from the general (“I fell in love”) to the particular (“I love those who forget the names of trees”), back and forth, until concluding with a moving address to a father who (spoiler alert) reappears throughout the collection, thus giving this poem, and the book as a whole, an admirable culmination. “X” is a remarkable finish to this refreshingly laid-back and intelligent debut collection of poems. Let’s just hope Dan Chelotti’s future collections—something tells me there’ll be more—live up to the accomplishment of X.

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