‘Isa the Truck Named Isadore’ by Amanda Nadelberg
The cover of Amanda Nadelberg’s Isa the Truck Named Isadore is a close-up of a Barbie head stuck atop a stalk in an unkempt patch of flowers and weeds. Oddly reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s jar on a hill in Tennessee, Barbie’s head shines in the sunlight, which haloes her hair so that the flowers seem slovenly in comparison. Where Barbie’s plastic torso would be, two heart-shaped leaves diverge.
The picture is a catchy advertisement for the contents of the book, and I give Slope Editions credit for using a picture taken by the author herself. As promised by the photo, the childlike quality of Nadelberg’s work is not lacking an adult sense of irony (children aren’t the only ones who dismember their toys). Each poem title is a person’s name, and the names—delivered alphabetically from A to Zeb—are mostly unusual, and all evocative. I am most intrigued by the Welsh ones, and plan to look up how to pronounce them as soon as I finish this review.
As we move through the alphabet, we meet many misfit characters, some weird, some just plain silly, and some rather touching. Sometimes their innocence rises toward an alternate and mythic world. “Elijah” concerns a visit from a childlike fertility god. “When you open the door / he humps the banister” (but he’s not a dog). “He drinks so little from the cup…everyone can’t be sure if / he’s really there” (bird?). The roof he climbs on is definitely “slate” (London? Peter Pan?). “He looks so pretty in your dresses while you help wash the dishes / downstairs” (a transvestite, a male dress-up doll, an imaginary friend?) “Next year he will be / elsewhere but tonight this night/ you’re the winner. It’s a big night / when you’re sleeping with Elijah.”
There is a cheerfully weird quality about the language, though I wouldn’t describe it (as a blurb does) as “Fox in Sox gone savvy.” This would not be fair to either book. At times, Nadelberg’s lines are more an update of Gertrude Stein. “Runa” begins: “Ready and waiting is/ pretty or is pretty or/ is awed by the/ fisherman is an outdated/ version is a bad/ mother here.” I also detect a whiff of The Spoon River Anthology. Each character’s limitations can seem appealing or insulting depending on your mood. The teenager in “Ughtred,” who is planning out her life both “short-term” and “after,” ends up saying “all I can say is / I wish myself a pretty pair of cowboy boots and / even prettier pregnancy.” The silliness piles up, but so does an undercurrent of desperation.
I might read some of these poems to my daughters, as the blurb suggests, but definitely not all of them. For example, “Kaapo” runs a baby factory in the shed. “I bought Theo, my now-dead, / there. One hundred / plus twenty dollars. His blue face/ was so endearing.” On first readings, these poems seem light and funny, but rereading brings out more sadness, and the sense of a very limited world. Sickness and death are here, but few people ever change. Children are sold or adopted. Cuthbert says “My / parents are gone and I am/ glad about it.” Individuals long to be elsewhere, even though other places seem “pretty much the same.”
I do, on occasion, find myself wishing that Nadelberg’s syntax could be stretched and tensed more by further manipulation of both enjambment and the larger white space between stanza breaks. Lisa Jarnot’s introduction cites more prosodic craftiness than I can hear, but does suggest where the prosody works best. She cites the book’s “well-shaped” couplets, though there is only one poem written entirely in couplets. This unwittingly makes the point that whenever stanza breaks are used as a formal, lyric device, rather than just a narrative break, it makes the work more memorable. In “Johanna,” the spacing helps sustain the rhythm elegantly, however silly the content:
His wife is an elegant room.
Cameo white with green things of detail.
Orange helps the eyes in a couple of ways. Carrots. Signs.
The room is beautiful. So many syllables. Argentina.
His wife is duitiful. Elegant. Roomy. On the first floor
to the left of the stairs.
His wife like many things needs to be cleaned and
ventilated, is glad when well lit.
The careful pacing lets the poem get away with “green things of detail” and helps lend the content an effectively humorous gravity. The last poem, “Zeb” is in quatrains. Though the stanzas start as paragraph breaks, the syntax starts to leap over the white space to rhythmically reinforce the speaker’s poignant address to Zeb, who is remembered as “wanting to come in and over.” The speaker apologizes that her “Aunt said no,” and wouldn’t let him. The poem ends with a breathless, semi-punctuated invitation:
Alaska, will you come
to Maine for the summer?
I promise no singing
but I’d like you to come
to Maine for the summer
my family will be there
and I’d like you to come.
It’s a long drive but
my family will be there
And they want to meet you.
They are from Minnesota.
They like Bob Dylan
he sings so small and big.
Though the speaker might be searching for words, she’s hardly rambling. The stanza and line breaks raise the emotional stakes, insisting that her family will be there, her words will break through the wall. In these and other poems, Amanda Nadelberg promises to match her wonderfully imagined world to a lyric drive that makes her work leap off the page without limiting the gently haunting voice of her characters.
Few of Nadelberg’s characters realize they are trapped, and many are unable to escape. “Norbert” expresses longing for truckers, not for their cowboy mystique, but for the simple fact that they carry things in carefully labeled boxes closed up like hearts, and get to travel long distances. “Pansy” speaks about a flight attendant who “stepped up to / the bat.” This character “was a visionary of sorts.” This would be a positive attribute if the poem hadn’t started “This was the moment that no one had been waiting for.” “Unafraid of the night and its colors she would count as many as she wanted.” “She sent some flowers to the moon.” And although the ending is cheerful, it suggests that she was taken away to the loony bin, because the moral is: “when the state policemen come to your front door and offer to install an escalator to the moon make sure you let them.” The desperation takes time to sink in.
Not all spins out of control. Some poems suggest an author watching over her characters, concerned with how they turn out. “Ferdinand” humorously suggests a clear-headed moral that would turn the general silliness into a savvy survival skill. Four times, the book is interrupted by an authorial voice imploring us to reread “Carwyn,” as if that one simple instruction would send seven copies of a chain letter bringing the characters good luck (or springing them from jail). Simple as it appears at first, Amanda Nadelberg’s world becomes more involving the more time you spend with it. There is more at stake each time. The light, humorous tone is made to do double duty—comic and tragic. In this sense, the author has imagined an oddly complete emotional world by deliberately limiting its contents.