by Jennifer L. Knox
Bloof Books 2007
Reviewed by Ben Mirov
Painted Tunnel Syndrome
The poems in Jennifer L. Knox’s second book Drunk By Noon mix pathos and humor in a way that reminds me of Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Knox’s poems and the old Looney Tunes masterpieces are both rooted in a similar type of existential pain. Remember, Wile E. Coyote only chases the Road Runner because he’s starving. It’s his hunger that brings him to strap himself to rocket roller skates and plot intricate schemes involving glue and hand grenades. If it weren’t for the coyote’s constant suffering, we wouldn’t have the discrete series of imaginative situations he engenders or all the laughs that come from those situations.
The world Knox creates in Drunk By Noon is like this. It’s a series of beautiful failures linked together by the imaginative desire to fail again and again in highly enjoyable and creative ways. Just as one finds solace in the coyote’s tenacity and even joy in the endless permutations of his imagination as he plots the Road Runner’s demise, so too, can one be refreshed by the poems in this collection. Take for example this section from “So Sweet Our Teeth Ache”:
Let’s get incapacitated
under a tree –
short of that –
slowly bleed to death
through our sock bottoms.
We got nothing
going on at work.
We got no
and by the looks
of the stumps still rotting
in the bear traps on the lawn,
none’s on the way.
Ostensibly, “So Sweet Our Teeth Ache” is about folks without shoes getting drunk and bleeding to death in someone’s backyard. The overriding sense in the poem is that everything is hopelessly doomed; however, this hopelessness is undercut by Knox’s wry humor and bursts of unexpected imagery. There may be no hope for enlightenment in the world encapsulated by “So Sweet Our Teeth Ache,” but who cares about “fresh perspective” when there are beers to drink and stumps to trap.
Not since I first read James Tate have I encountered a poet who is able create a world that is at once so bizarrely asymmetrical to ours and yet somehow uncannily accurate in its portrayal of humanness. Even as Knox takes on the persona of “a little bird girl with a very, very / big dick” or laments the way in which, “We swing and miss, back / and forth, between the pussy // and jail,” she develops a strong sense of empathy for everyone and everything in her poems.
Granted, that empathy is often cloaked in scathing critique and incisive humor. In the poem “Short People,” the Japanese Emperor Hiro Hito must tell the people of Japan that he is going to surrender, but:
People had never / heard emperor Hiro Hito’s voice before – they thought the Emperor was God. He / spoke in the highest level of formality – using words so antiquated, / ordinary people couldn’t understand a thing he was talking about.
Despite Hiro Hito’s good intentions, his message must be translated by an academic:
A man wearing big glasses translates: / “He’s saying we all did a really great job…” he pauses, furrows his brow… “but I think he wants us to give up.”
Until this point in the poem, the scene is wrought with a kind of sad irony. The leader of a defeated nation is forced to tell his people that he plans to surrender to invading forces, but his message is skewed by his use of an “antiquated” high-dialect that can only be understood by literati. Knox could be addressing any number of critical topics in “Short People”: the role of the poet in society, the disparity between a government and its citizens, or the complexities in the relationship between author and reader. All of these issues seem present in “Short People,” even as the final line, “This is what most of Randy / Newman’s songs are about.” deposes them of their seriousness.
This is characteristic of the wonderful way in which Knox manages to be thoughtful and relevant while not taking anything too seriously. In light of the final line, the emperor seems less god-like and more human as he is compared to a pop-pianist. By comparing Newman and Hiro Hito, Knox manages to cast Hiro Hito as an artistic type, trying his best to get his message across to a distant audience. In this light, the emperor is far more likeable, but no less humorous and entertaining than he was at the outset of the poem. Most if not all of the personas in Drunk By Noon are like Hiro Hito: highly fallible and very laughable in a way that is acutely human.
What I like most about Drunk By Noon besides its imaginative leaps and phantasmagoric imagery is that it never seems to lose track of the quotidian. In “Speech to the Crowd at the Rodeo,” the narrator prattles on about “…a totally hot threeway” inside a tepee, decapitating the heads of enemies and using them as puppets and impregnating “all you fine, fine women out there.” The strangeness of the narrative, however, gains an eerie relevance when one considers that the “Crowd at the Rodeo” is not an imaginary one, but rather, us, the members of the collective audience reading or hearing Knox read. The implication that we are “the crowd” suggests that we are also an essential part of the occasion that has engendered the narrator’s tangent filled speech, not an amorphous third party watching from a safe distance. In this way, the poem avoids interpretation as an imaginative projection, analogous to, yet unaffected by, our reality. The world of “Speech to the Crowd at the Rodeo” isn’t a fantasy. It is the one we share and inhabit together.
One of my favorite Wile E. Coyote gags is the one where he paints a fake tunnel on a wall hoping the road runner will try to run through it. Anyone who’s ever watched Looney Tunes knows what happens next… the Road Runner passes through the tunnel… When Wile E. tries to follow… we know what happens, we always know, but it’s funny and new every time. This is the main reason to love Drunk By Noon. It’s not a giant leap from Knox’s equally sassy-sarcastic A Gringo Like Me, but it’s nice to watch someone do what they do and do it well. I’d recommend this book to anyone, even if they don’t start their day with a sixer.