by Ayten Tartici
Published by BlazeVOX[books], 2009 | 76 pages
Narrative poetry gets its gusts from tying itself to time’s railroad tracks, bustles because of time passing—something’s happening, and then another something is, onward until denouement or cathartic close. Neither lyric nor surreal poetry offers this sort of set-up—the stakes in each enterprise are different, are less bound to clocks, are more tied to different clicks and ticks and tocks.
There is, of course, hybrid work, stuff that straddles fences of meaning and intent—think of how Wallace Steven’s stuff is, fundamentally, lyric, yet bunches of his poems are crouched in narrative, following a this-then-this-happens pattern which, through action, through stuff actually happening, open onto a new lyric view. Likewise, in a strange way, Steve Langan’s Meet Me at the Happy Bar, is a collection whose central concern is, largely, making meaning and piecing together a world from and with squishy, deformed words. From the title on, you get the stakes of what Mr. Langan is pushing.
If it seems like this attention to or obsession with time is insignificant, it’s worth at least noting how often Langan’s winking toward or wrestling with ideas of time. Pulled from poems in the book at random:
Said the doctor to his patient,
so much time and only one body.
(“Meditation on the Cabin (and Beyond)”)
Because it’s midnight,
tell us the story of the wanderer.
(“So what should we do about the father?”)
Are you able to condone sunrise?
Is kiwi the monumental fruit?
(“Reasons for Kindness”)
I don’t at all want or mean to imply that Langan’s central preoccupation is with time—it’s not, at all. His central preoccupation is linguistic and is fundamentally about identity. Here’s the first six lines from “Stone (Where the Heart Is)”:
This city is perfect for us.
Every event is metamorphosis in reverse.
The buildings are glued to the earth,
The foreman whispers into his bullhorn.
I won’t ask you to remember this place.
Who am I, anyway? Call me whatever you want.
So then: chaos, entropy, the urban shimmy and mix of voices, change as a constant and/or necessity. Langan’s got this stuff down cold in the brightest possible way; the man uses words like a tinkerer delighting in some strange attic, stuccoing his lines with toothsome phrases enough to make the poems almost feel like meals (“How mere “pilfering” may play / under the kleig lights. // Petty theft.”).
What makes Langan’s Meet Me at the Happy Bar stand so far out from other collections is not just the whirligig zip and whiplash he causes by putting disparate lines next to and on top of each other (“The answer is deer at the salt lick. / What I mean is rare coins and stamps.”), nor the ache for some substantial meaning to bedazzle all this flotsam onto, some foundation to leave the heaps upon. No, what makes this all such a big deal is the explicit emphasis of now, of time.
Langan’s poetry throughout shines—sweats, even—with a desperate awareness that time is critical, is passing. His poems acknowledge that, yes, meaning and understanding and sense are all critical and to-be-reached-for things, but instead of taking a sort of beard-stroking well, let’s see attitude, his poems damn near vibrate with urgency. Right to the very end, there’s a throbbing right now shooting through the works—in fact, the last poem’s character asks it, straight out. After describing a nameless man—some central person in the speaker’s life (this reviewer’s guess: a father)—the speaker recalls how the nameless man “once said ‘What bright idea do you have tonight, // Mr. I Don’t Listen to the Blues Much Anymore / Mr. Trumpet Blown Deep into the Crosswind?”
And so we end not just with the clinging image of a trumpet blowing into crosswind—literally, of sound/order being created directly into noise/chaos—but with that muscular emphasis: what bright idea do you have tonight? Steve Langan’s Meet Me at the Happy Bar is more than a fizzy concoction of words scrambling in pursuit of coherence; the scrambling’s happening, and on the wall a clock is ticking. Loudly.
Weston Cutter’s from Minnesota, edits Corduroy Books, and has work coming soon in The Gettysburg Review, The Sonora Review, and Third Coast.