by Jeremy Schmall
X-ing Books 2011
Reviewed by Robert Clark
“The lake bottom / like warm tongues between my toes”
The suburbs have no Ovid. Simply being seen as in the running for that honor may be risky for a literary reputation. An obituary for John Updike in the L.A. Times mentioned that he was often called “the poet laureate of the suburbs.” Then, the rest of the obituary insisted that Updike was far more than a mere chronicler of neighborly adultery in comfortable surroundings.
Yet anti-suburb prejudice is a suburban pose, since genuine flâneurs and boulevardiers are not that common in the American colleges that sustain most poets. Urban mystification of putting-green lawns and ranch houses would be a bit perverse, and greater rewards follow from clear poetic insight into suburban rituals. That is provided by Jeremy Schmall in The Cult of Comfort, and as he puts it:
It’s not that our culture needs
clarity in our poems,
we need clarity in our poets.
(“It’s About Waking Up”)
Schmall’s clarity sometimes begins with his titles, notably “The City is Ugly.” There he proposes that in the city:
The women are ugly.
The men are ugly. & my hands
smell like rotting chicken.
Ugliness in this book often comes from the work of hands and days. Fisticuffs are comically abundant. In various poems, a dog, horse, bear and whale are threatened with a “punch.” Even the handshake, which one might expect to be benign, is often a sign of an ambivalent agreement, contract, or gesture. “A Limp Handshake” is about a mountaintop tryst that ends in a:
Wet trumpet blast
to ruin the morning.
Elsewhere, the handshake is more like the energetic detached appendage of the Addams family’s Cousin It: “I put a handshake in the old lady’s purse/ in search of hard candy.” If ordinarily a “handshake deal” signifies strong informal trust based on a notion of community, in The Cult of Comfort, fakery and betrayal of trust are leitmotifs. This landscape is not the suburban-sinister ground of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, but it is a place of dangers referred to obliquely, and denied whenever possible.
Evil is instead comfortably ensconced as background, as in poems like “In the Middle Distance,” below in nearly its entirety:
condoms beside the street.
Clear bottle filled with urine
beside the vending machine.
Fingernail scars down the face.
Because HIGH SCHOOL CHEERLEADER
Ex-girlfriend through shattered monocle.
Self-loathing in a convex mirror.
Five knuckles atop a red onion.
The allusion to Ashbery turns us away from self-reflection and the multiple perspectives of the fun-house mirror. Schmall presents a nasty equation of scene and sexual assault, hands reduced to punching knuckles.
The Cult of Comfort even toys with a “handmade” look in the format of its own manufacture. It is a full-length book in 4X6 chapbook format. Such artifice, a term whose connotations include the “wily” handcraft, skillfully and strategically designed, is in accord with the rapid shifts in perspective in many of the poems; in one poem, one of the worst suburban nightmares–a plane crash–is seen from the point of view of a rescue-worker, an onlooker observing news media onlookers, and a crash survivor, and the strange comforts and consolations of the suburbs are noted wryly. But someone thinks to be grateful for them:
under the city all night
& almost no one thinks to thank them.
…Oh, but it’s swell. The chopsticks
included & the can of Coke
are delightful. The lake bottom
like warm tongues between my toes.