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Hilarity
by Patty Seyburn

Reviewed by Steve Langan


Published:

Published by New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2009   |   75 pages

In her third collection, Hilarity, Patty Seyburn writes a poetry of idiosyncratic patterns through which she restlessly questions and names. On the surface, the outcome seems to serve—as if the two can be separated—as linguistic or philosophical taxonomy. However, in these speedy, dense classifications, she evokes much more than a mere phenomenological landscape full of meaningful beasts and backdrops. Always inviting the reader’s participatory spirit, she writes, “Cue the crickets. Cue the junebugs. / Cue the sliver of a moon.” Through these rapid combinations, Seyburn responds to the many myths she creates to develop her own aslant universe. Though these poems openly attempt to test the limits of language, they somehow sustain the reader’s sense of wonder, too. Seyburn achieves an alchemy in which there is a new set of activators, agents, and reactions.

Uncensored thought brought with immediacy into rhythmic language helps create surprise and mystery in these poems. Seyburn’s brilliant opening poem, “When I’m not feeling so good,” ends with the speaker’s exhaustion over, and surrender to, a return to what she calls “the dimestore of my youth.” Seyburn’s specialty, the naming of alternative ways of seeing and acting, becomes a way of warding off the evil spirits of one’s own history—or just shrugging off boredom. Here, after a virtuosic throat-clearing that catalogs some possibilities for liberation, the speaker of this poem says, “In the end, someone always carries me down/the mountain.”

Seyburn cleverly decides to leave both the dimestore and the mountaintop behind entirely. In the early poems of this collection, she holds on tightly to little else but the recurring and various “daughter.” Everything else presented in these poems seems open to blurring, contradiction, shifting, and erasure. Still, complicated and intense feeling is as necessary a motivator and guide in her poems as language. Many poets begin with strong feeling and attempt to find the words to describe it. Seyburn’s mode is different. Through language she hopes to discover the strong feeling that, in the province of her poems and, she might say, in the culture at large, is elusive. In “The Alphabetizer Speaks,” she writes, “have never known starvation nor plenitude / and unless the order of the world / changes, I won’t.” Throughout this collection, Seyburn asks herself profound, absurd, and always generative questions in response to modern dilemmas and the many myths that inform—and frequently disturb—her unique vision of now.

Other noteworthy poems include the series of poems titled “In re,” a contemporary Genesis; a magnificent fable titled “First Bookshelf”; and the bracing and scary “Psalm to Night,” in which the recurring motif of the daughter returns, this time to briefly haunt us. A series of poems titled with a specific time of day remind one of a tricked-out Rilke—one no less inclined to spiritual searching as a mode of inquiry. In “Twelve Twelve AM,” Seyburn writes:

I wish—I wish—I do not know what to wish for—

just another night in the conditional.

Swigs from a flask of sighs.

A river, a bird, a pot, a well.

The subconscious—what a peacemaker.

Adding one more layer of irony, a series of unforgettable prose poems in third person, carefully detailing the “return of mirth” in the eventual form of a child, concludes this singular and substantial collection on a note of triumphant mystery.


Steve Langan is the author of Freezing and Notes on Exile and Other Poems. His collection of poems, Meet Me at the Happy Bar, is available from BlazeVOX [books].

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