‘Hiccups, or Automythobiography II’ by Joe Pan
“a pleasurable / heft—a branch bearing fruit / or a fruit bearing worms”
In many ways, travel—or even just existence away from home—attunes one to both environmental rhythm and the clatter of thought. Outside the usual circles and spheres, the traveler is bombarded with unfamiliar sounds, languages, sights, and aromas, yet more receptive to them. It’s an essentially poetic mentality: travelers begin to think like poets even if they may be disinclined to pay the kind of close attention that poetry requires.
The desire to record and listen through a constantly shifting landscape, both exterior and interior, drives Joe Pan’s second collection, Hiccups, or Autobiomythography II. The work is largely observational and cartographic; spare, short lines wander through both physical space and the topography of the associative mind. The stanzas, usually tight tercets, also tend to wander—across the page, sometimes clinging to the left margin, elsewhere centered or moving right—functioning thereby as locations: stopping points, breaths taken, notes scratched into permanence.
The result is a carefully constructed, well-crafted glimpse of a mind in motion: the ears keenly tuned in and the eyes open to tiny, often startling details. In “Pacific Northwest,” for instance, the gaze lands on “bugs” that “practice shadow puppets / behind the green leaf,” then shifts to a “black ant” taking a bow as it works towards an aphoristic final couplet: “Listening for birds, I hear the river— / listening for the river, I hear the birds.” There, in acknowledgement of sensual imprecision—the sheer impossibility of capturing their totality—resides part of what makes this collection so vibrant.
Throughout, an interesting tension arises between fleeting images and the larger themes they indicate. In “DC,” for instance, sprout “Green shoots on one side / of a January branch,” but (echoing our divided politics) only “half choose hope.” In the next stanza, “Congress—the mighty chambers” folds into “two dogs / wrestling over street meat.” More haunting still is the lovely juxtaposition between the natural and artificial in the final stanza of “Vegas,” where the “Desert moon” becomes “just another bulb / in Vegas.” It’s easy, surrounded by flashing lights and the promise of quick cash, to forgot that you’re on a tiny rock in the universe.
Pan furthers this sensibility in the urban sphere, truly animating its constant commotion. The second section, “Nineteen Years after My Nineteenth Year,” traces the peripatetic poet in New York City, finding in its miniatures both the sublime and the grotesque. Tourists become a heartless throng in the heat: “Under July’s carapace,” he writes, “cameras turn people / into sociopaths.” Elsewhere, in contrast, an arresting snapshot: “Two escalators running / in opposite directions— / New Years Eve.” I love how the transition between two years echoes the lonely image preceding it: one year disappearing into the past, the next mechanically running into the future.
Still, there’s risk in relying so much on the travelogue’s observations, impressions, and memories. What works in most places—the keen eye for detail, the desire to extrapolate large ideas from small moments— sometimes becomes an impediment. On first read, I wondered about the exoticization in the three-line “Taiwan,” wherein a “Drunken god dances before / the temple fire—shark eyes / floating in a bucket.” The images, though stark and evocative, seem rooted in a foreigner’s perspective: the liberating gaze of the wanderer somehow constraining what’s seen. Largely, though, Pan avoids this type of pitfall.
The final section, “NyQuil™ Lucid Fever Lucky Dream Light Emporium,” maps the microscopic while hinting at real or imagined (dreamed) events. Stanzas collide with chemical compounds and one another, a molecular poetics in which lucid flashes yield to witty bon mots, then in turn to epiphany. The beguiling “Testing pens for a pleasurable / heft—a branch bearing fruit / or a fruit bearing worms” becomes the accurate (and refreshingly crude) “Folks say the worst shit / possible, yet cringe / to read it lettered on the page.”
Ultimately, what emerges is not so much a survey of the world outside as a sense of the poet as perceiver, duly recording impressions and chewing over morsels of language. Whether training a magnifying glass on tiny creatures, drifting through strange landscapes, smelling the New York City air, or exploring personal memories, Pan is looking at the ways that the world maps onto the self. Fittingly, and in testament to what Hiccups does so well, there doesn’t seem to be a destination in mind so much as a love of the journey.