Begin Anywhere

by Frank Giampetro
Alice James Books 2008
Reviewed by PJ Gallo



giampetro coverFrank Giampietro’s Begin Anywhere is, above all, an exercise in self-consciousness, self-interest, self-indulgence and a number of other self-nouns sprung from the same sort of goofy egotism allowed in children. That said, his poems can be compelling insofar as they remain wide-eyed explorations of their invariable and stylized subject, Frank Giampietro. When Giampietro resists indulging in his persona, his speakers’ self-interest can be an effective representation of the way the self splinters among the various parts of our daily lives. More often, though, he just seems like he can’t help himself.

On one hand, an uncharacteristically rhymed sonnet like “Frankstory” (sidenote: other titles that include the poet’s first name are “Frank Giampietro, Poet,” “Frankie the Haggler,” and “Anti-Ekfrankcis”) takes on an interesting conceptual structure wherein one man’s sense of his own history is placed in the context of global history which is then placed inside another man’s sense of his own history. The result is three historical moments presented like a set of Matryoshka dolls, and it is unclear whether the speaker’s personal history is to be thought the most important or the least. The method borders selflessness but implies that history cannot exist if not for its iteration in the minds of living people. On the other hand, a poem like “Me Spy with My Little Eye” might more accurately represent the collection’s single-faceted obsession with the self—all while chanting a childlike me, me, me:

Me and no more fifty-gallon fish tank.
Me in my new hundred-dollar shoes
and my, if me don’t cut my hair just so
my head looks huge.
Me, my head is huge.

Everything exists in the poem because of the speaker, which makes some obvious philosophical sense. Giampietro wisely avoids philosophy, but still, his hybrid baby-talk and the afterthought “you” introduced in the final three lines of the poem amount to a silly sort of manipulation—the kind used to uphold rules in a children’s game. Giampietro concludes, “You’re so smart / and so cool, but I freakin’ spy you.”

Most of the poems in the collection are not so syntactically inventive or formally organized—most are colloquial and observational. The connection is strong, and one of Giampietro’s more derivative modes is to present a series of invariably self-referential statements tied together with an ambiguous title such as “Another Poem Scoring 4.7 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test” or “Confessional Poem #783.” The first few lines of the latter poem test the limits of the style with representative humor:

I have dried my hands on my dog.
I have stolen the first line of this poem
from a TV commercial
for beer. I have used a cock ring.
I fear the art teacher at the school where I work
will use this knowledge against me someday.

The poem ends strongly, with the speaker’s opinion of himself projected imaginatively through his son. The final lines, “if my heart doesn’t give out too soon / my boy will pity me,” deflate the supposed importance of what comes before and subtly recognize a sad quietness in the gaps between the speaker’s yells. Nevertheless, these poems rely on their becoming fresher and fresher with each incoming line—a technique that, even when done successfully, can feel like a tedious, meandering search for the next great self-oriented shock.

Evident in those same early lines of “Confessional Poem #783” is another of Giampietro’s methods, namely a persistent self-consciousness. “Dear J, I Patched This up Instead of That One I Promised About Simone Weil” is the most obvious of such poems, and Giampietro doesn’t stop with the title. In it, he writes, “‘After Eating an Apple Core and All, While Riding in my Car’ / is what this poem was going to be called.” Of course, the poem does end up largely about Simone Weil, highlighting the one-dimensional strangeness of being told what not to expect but expecting it anyway. To say a poem would have been about Simone Weil or could have been a villanelle or hasn’t fulfilled any number of alternate possibilities is to be bland and obvious, but also means a recognition that circumstances necessarily external to the poem have interfered with its purpose—and that the self or the speaker or Frank Giampietro, despite the precedence any of them takes, does not exist without something gleaned from the rest of the world.

The title poem may be the best of such poems. The poem reveals the physical and emotional history of a woman’s death, but it does so in very distinct, well-paced steps. Halfway through the poem, after the speaker’s father has mysteriously thrown a shotgun into a lake, Giampietro reveals the cause of death, and his speaker begins his appropriate unraveling:

Or I could begin after the splash, with the ducks
flying back to the bread. Or ten minutes earlier
with my father not consoling, but wanting to console
my half-sister as she stands there, a shadow’s length
from the doorway watching him hold
what’s left of his first wife. Of course I could begin
with his wife shooting herself
in my half-sister’s abandoned playhouse.

The poem begins again several times before and after these lines, and it works largely because it reluctantly backgrounds its self-consciousness in the face of a visceral, emotionally-charged incident. It also works because the poem’s self-conscious refrain and the inherent emotionality of the subject meld successfully into a sad stutter, as if the speaker must continue to begin the story because he is afraid the end of his story will really be the end.

Such human moments make it difficult to take a hard line on Begin Anywhere. It would be easy to find fault with the overstated, colloquial comedy of many of Frank Giampietro’s poems, but there is an endearing clumsiness about his speakers, as if they are forever under threat of tripping on their shoelaces or drinking too much wine at their in-laws’. Still, Giampietro gives himself a starring role in the collection, and like most character actors, his better work is done in bit parts.