Getting Lost in a City Like This
by Jack Anderson
Hanging Loose Press 2009
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Loved and Lost
Jack Anderson’s new collection Getting Lost in A City Like This is an unpretentious collection of light prose poems, many of which are odd love letters to New York City. Disdaining the urbane humor of the New York School, they assert an innocence that sometimes suggests William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, but more often suggests milk left too long in the fridge. Certainly, innocence should take unexpected left turns to avoid being cloying, but Anderson’s work tends to protest too much. It’s one thing to recall a young man taking off his clothes in the London Underground, perhaps on a dare, his relaxed, innocent manner causing people to smile and become his friends and “friends of one another,” and another thing to conclude, “while he was naked / we were joined together / in sweet solidarity: / it was all so innocent, / so civilized, / so good.” Can I take this, straight or twisted? Where are you Walt Whitman? Let nakedness stand on its own bare feet. Here the innocence begins to stink.
I know Anderson wants to keep things light-hearted yet lurid, and to avoid the “humorless profundities” Edward Field cites in his blurb. It’s a tough balance, though, and Anderson’s childish mask would be more effective if his speaker were less like a self-conscious Forrest Gump: “I am hungry, happy, // lean with desire, / I want to fatten on life, // for the world is one big Chinese restaurant…” Gump is fine, Gumpness pushed one step too far equals curdled milk:
yes I want to roam through your city exploring and delving
deeper and deeper into locales districts quarters and neighborhoods
the working class ones as well as the ritzy
and I pray they all have their own special dignity
yes I want to see what there is where you are
so invite me invite me oh please invite me
It can be disappointing when Anderson uses this strangely insistent, cloying tone while invoking a New York not deep enough to be dreamlike. It undermines the bite needed when Anderson later explores the bitter humor inherent in aging, and writes towards the end, “Only danger is real.” Italo Calvino got much more mileage in Invisible Cities by waiting until mid-book for Kublai Khan to challenge Polo by suggesting that all the cities he describes are variants of his native Venice, and taking care to construct a chessboard of alternating chapters integrating Polo’s breathless descriptions of imagined cities and his direct and disillusioned discourse with Khan on the inevitability of his empire’s decline.
Admittedly, Anderson never takes himself that seriously: “Dogged Love,” the story of a gay couple that stays together in a dead relationship for the sake of their dogs is lighthearted and fun, with a sting at the end. Other pieces are simply weird, like “Indulgence and Restraint, A Moral Lesson,” where the speaker eats his toes, which taste “good. Quite Good. Something like a cruller.” These are hit or miss, and uniquely odd. You might like them. You might laugh out loud. “Hitler’s Daughter” does a better job of anchoring Anderson’s sometimes creepy humor in a situation that repays some additional thought.
One fully integrated success is the delightfully nasty “The Schattners Are Coming,” which takes on the old time conventions of rural hospitality in properly cracked fashion. The Schattners, of course, are relatives from hell. “On certain Sundays, Gramma would get this hunch: / “The Schattners are coming. I feel it in my bones.” / (And she was usually right.)” The only way to avoid their visits was to pretend that you were not home. The Schattners, of course, would persist banging at the front door, and sneaking around the back until someone inside was unlucky enough to betray their presence by moving. The thinly-veiled mutual social destruction then escalates to a Hatfield/McCoy level of insanity.
Other successes such as “Who Are the Rich and Where Do They Live,” or the Calvinoesque “Three Museums,” occur when Anderson drops most of the wry commentary and even mutes his sense of humor, allowing his appealingly simple, direct, uniquely ironic observations to freely combine nostalgia and innocence, letting them dance and deepen into more complex emotions. For the most part though, the imagined city Anderson is getting lost in could use a deeper, more intriguingly structured invisibility.