WITH MY THROAT FULL OF SPARKLERS, WE'RE GOING TO COLONIZE MARS
Mark Bibbins, They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full, Copper Canyon Press, 2014
Reviewed by Eric Helms
The barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman comes to mind, facing the germinal, opening lines of Mark Bibbins' "Thunderbride," one of many knockouts from his third collection, They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full: "My throat is full of sparklers / Making me a light house / For a loveship that can fly." As well, the protean wit and dodging frankness of a John Donne or Frederick Seidel: "Our mother monarch / sweet land paternity / I'll eat their offspring's money and let you have a bite." It's a pleasure to receive such disturbing avowals, a delight to catch wind of what might best be described as a weltende variation of "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.'" (Or "God Save the Queen," depending on how you sing it.)
Like Seidel and Donne before him, Bibbins commands through a blend of corrosive wit and stony observation. At times, the voice spits with a rapper's audacity, offending the sublime (You must see that I'm eating for two sexes) but for the purpose of broadcasting the status of a world. A world in which parent and child, postman and general are imbibed by the state of their klout scores, and fiending with the same Whitmanic urge to ubiquitize their presence. Of course, other conflicts are given voice and with an air that reflects the hubris and unconcern of our cyber-sucked minds: "Tonight we bomb / Tonight we blitz / Tonight we barrage." The speaker sings his ditty and shits napalm, testifying to a new height of civilized brutality that only the tenure of empire (god blessed) could drive.
*I look forward to receiving my review copy with which I can begin reviewing what can only be a tour-de-force.
Two weeks and my review copy has yet to arrive at the laundry mat where our mail is delivered. The kind manager at first allowed me to breathe at the packages that I considered, from a distance, to resemble the packaging of a review copy, but, after the third evening, this courtesy was rebuked.
I consider my disappointment not unlike "the disappointment / of approaching a sleeping animal / only to learn that it is dead." This comes from the speaker of "Factory," a poem which finds Bibbins actualizing the grades of disappointment that nudge "one slightly / further into despair," a despair which reflects one's interiority, as well as the brokenness of a factory.
Within "Factory" (published last week in Poetry; where else am I to obtain these poems?) we do not find the barbaric yawp of "Thunderbride," (its displacements, movements, velocities) but instead the contemplative oscillation that one identifies in the work of a Mark Strand or Wallace Stevens.
It's a voice of comedown, disillusionment and maturity, one which admits that "we were broken / That we lingered near a broken factory / That we had broken." If "Thunderbride" can be thought as pyroclastic molten expelled by volcanic eruption (triggered by more ominous plate-on-plate activity), then "Factory" is to be viewed as the inevitable crystallization and cooling of that magma.
Furthermore, the speaker of "Factory" is making amends, mixing the fire and torment of "Thunderbride" with muddy remorse and heavy rains. Such blends for a viscous movement that sustains a music that is wisdom and a wisdom that is harmony:
He can say it was a painting
He can say we were the painting
Or that the painting wasn't painting
And that we only happen to ourselves
The assurance and clarity of the meditation suggests wisdom all its own and yet—delivered with such distance—one questions if the speaker is spoken through and foreign to that which he reveals, with perfect rhyme nonetheless. This combines for an effect that approaches synesthesia—where the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experience in another lane–an effect that gives permission to consider "That there were different paintings / That could be played as songs."
*I'm still looking forward to receiving my review copy with which I can begin reviewing what can only be a tour-de-force.
"I haven't been able / to open it for days, / but have been admiring / a chunk of secondhand sun" is how I felt the evening I received Mark Bibbins' third collection, They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full. The manila, bubble-wrapped packaging was stamped with red ink and read, "MEDIA MATERIAL" and was all I had fantasized.
The night of its arrival, I dreamed I had opened the packaging at Tom's while waiting for an omelet (peppers, ham, onion, feta) and being so attached had carried my review copy with me (not unlike a child will carry a blanket or stuffed animal) into the restaurant's bathroom where to my horror it dropped into the commode.
This nightmare would terminate just as the soggy pages were being placed beneath the industrial-strength hand dryer. When I woke I opened the bubble-wrapped packaging with a penknife, which last had been used to smear peanut butter upon toast.
At 4am, I sat down in my blood-orange Victorian sofa-chair and turned at random to page 26,"Worst Things First." Immediately, I identified with the "Poor sad demon in his poor dead tree," and waited for "A bag of thank-you notes" to fall on me from "he who pities me." And yet this could only be myself, which pissed me off, "culturally speaking."
The interior cover design for They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full is a photograph of a matchbook being consumed by its own flames (orange to red, primarily) on what might be a spirit board—I can only make out "the dance of," the other characters (if you follow the photo to the back page) prove too boiled and warped to distinguish; however, I want to imagine the dance of the duende—as the poems which TDKYBTHTKYBTF collects are appealing and dangerous, possess that peculiar magnetism that both disturbs and charms. As well, pieces like "This Land Is Mylar" [This Land Is My Lard?] seem to have been inspired by a succubus or goblin-like fairy creature: "Balloons collapsing / onto sites of un- / speakable sadness / it's an orchestra / whose conductor / wags a corn dog at the horns."
What is to be praised about Bibbins' third collection is how it's able—with an attitude of going too far is never enough—to pronounce (without compromise) the nothingness and numbness of America: our brandied voices, hysterical states and phobias, all which stalk from a consumption rate—which, as the title suggests, is fueled by our freedom and its crude appetite.
With unvarnished invention and an invective that swipes, Bibbins cuts into Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." The delivery matches his rendition of "God Save the Queen," and (audibly enough) gets er done: "This land of ours / eats up marches / and techno / and heartstrings / and spit-shined schadenfreude." Like a computer cooked by Alzheimer's, the speaker is short-fused and spits the discombobbobbob. And yet is this voice not precise, droning in on the painful dissipation that develops from unchecked conquest and triumph?
But how far will our lewd appetite take us? If we turn to "Historical Action Figure," all the way to Mars because Buzz Aldrin (his website can be found [here]) wants to colonize it, "well, not by himself, but maybe he can / be a consultant, which" as far as the speaker can tell "is about the best job there is, better / than an astronaut or wildcatter." Channeling "America," and the armed-space rage age of Kennedy, the poem recaps, gets cap-locked, as if we needed to be reminded that "IT IS WE WHO ARE IMPORTANT." The poem concludes "when we swim down into the holes / we've punched in the world / and suck the money out," and awakes us to the new face of manifest destiny expanding through the cosmos.
And yet the most troubling pieces bore into America's heartland, focus upon the righteousness and rightfulness, which proclaims "one day Jesus will hit us / like a ton of marijuana biscuits" and prays to be as "rich / as a tobacco field in heaven." This comes from "No. 6" & "No. 5" of the Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine poems, a sequence of six, tucked in the heart of the collection, which take on the persona of Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson—the American media mogul, executive chairman, and former Southern Baptist minister (also son of U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson)—who is most recognized for being the asshole of evangelical discharge (he called for Hugo Chávez's assassination, remarked Ariel Sharon's ill-health an act of God, and denounced Hinduism as "demonic"). Disturbingly, depending on whom you're with and where you are, this asshole is identified by some as the prevailing apostle of conservative Christian identity:
Jimmy in jail and I don't care,
Tammy crack up
and I don't care. Wait a sec, is it
the desert in here
or is my greased-up heart
all a-sputter like a skillet
at a Friday fishfry […]
This persona goes on to remind his flock that "Half the fun // of end times / is always feeling full," and by doing so sheds light on the collection's interminable title. And yet what is it that keeps America ignorant of its barbaric appetite and well-off stupidity?
It was previously mentioned that we are imbibed by social media–the peaks and troughs of our klout scores by which we keep "analyzing" and "quizzing each other […] desperately dryhumping the finer points / of one of the least crucial issues of our moment," guessing at whether this colleague or connection "is acting or actually crazy / or on 'drugs.'" Following the bouncy and mischievous drift of A.R. Ammons' Garbage (which doesn't care much for formality and, in fact, hates ceremony), Bibbins closes the collection with "A Small Gesture of Gratitude," a tercet which allows for the kind of voice "everyone has come to expect from Americans anyway" because it has to tell you something:
TV news is killing us and the people who own it are killing us
and the criminals at whose behest they concoct more nontroversies
are killing us and the tons of hairspray and makeup they smear
on the toxic marionettes who mouth nontroversies are killing us,
as is our ignorance of the reality of everyone killing everyone […]
Moreover, Bibbins questions why he shouldn't follow footstep. It is, in fact, the the poets who have been "pointing into bottomless, topless, sideless / madness," taking "facts for feelings" and herding them "like butterflies / into killing jars, then running pins through them for the aesthetic / and/or ethical scrutiny of a tiny audience made mostly of other / butterfly-killers." In closing, TDKYBTHTKYBTF is a collection for our times (even the most desperate and least crucial of them (such as this review)), confirming the baldness of America and "the frivolous, vulgar idiots," who we frequently are.