Shuffle and Breakdown
by Cody Walker
Waywiser Press 2008
Reviewed by Rick Marlatt
The Blood Bank
Cody Walker’s debut collection, Shuffle and Breakdown, is a compilation of assorted reflections broken into five well-conceived segments. Walker draws inspiration from a wealth of diverse sources including history, literature, philosophy, social commentary, pop culture, political commentary and world news both major and bizarre. Through his playful use of rhyme and metaphor and his imaginative twists on traditional lullaby, Walker’s poems assert that he is an artist as vivacious as he is talented, and he channels a voice in these poems that is simultaneously aware and appreciative of his influences. Many of Walker’s poems such as “Scripture” and “Our Love and Woe Show” are meticulous, sophisticated practices in form and structure, while others like “Blind Date” and “Near Nude: Two Sketches” are brief fragments of thought which often reveal the inherent comedy of human existence. Shuffle and Breakdown exudes a tremendous accessibility with its wide range of themes and styles.
In “Don’t Let Worries Kill You Let The Church Help” (the title taken from a real church bulletin), Walker explores religion and what it means to be a person of faith. Following two tightly-packed stanzas in which he articulates a prayer with explosive, musical phrases such as “Diviner of Blackjack, of Blowgun” and “Landlord of Long Toms, of scimitars,” Walker demonstrates his unique sensibility with four entertaining, yet profound final lines:
Blessed is the man whose hopes exceed his reach,
Blessed is the woman who mixes gin and bleach,
Blessed is the child who feels that he can fly,
Blessed is the steeple on which the sparrows die.
Marked by a keen attention to rhythm and rhyme, Walker creates an incantatory movement in which the broad spectrum of humanity is celebrated.
“My Mother and Steven Seagal Share the Same Birthday” is another quirky, memorable piece in which Walker makes vivid connections between his own life and that of the actor. By initiating a litany of catch phrases quipped by Seagal throughout his…classic?…Hard to Kill, Walker creates an innovative exchange of consciousness for the reader to witness. After countering each Seagal remark with the notion that he would never catch his mother mimicking such banter, Walker notes:
And my mother
would never suddenly remember that this candidate had years
ago orchestrated a hit on her, had nearly killed her, and probably
thought he had killed her. And my mother’s eyes would never
narrow, and she would not then say (she would never say), I’ll
take you to the bank, Senator–the blood bank.
The “connection” existing between the poet’s mother and Steven Seagal–their shared birthday–lies dormant, but is nonetheless real. Likewise, Walker explores art within art, creating intriguing layers of prosody which examine life with a fresh eye. With other gems in the first four sections such as “Gamesmanship,” “I Tell This With a Shrug,” and “Song for the Song-Maker,” Walker continually displays his vast knowledge of formalism along with a stunning imagination which mutates those traditions to match his own artistic flairs.
The fifth and final section of the book transitions into a heavier tone. Through a series of letters titled after various cities and dates and signed by a narrator named “Caleb,” these nostalgic musings are deeply emotional and leave the reader with yet another avenue of Walker’s versatility. In “Chicago / June 1891” and “Natchez / December 1889,” Walker uses literary history as a vehicle to channel voices from the past and investigate the vastness of their contemporary legacies. “St. Louis / January 1891” comprises a dreary summation of current conditions in post-war America; the speaker closes out the letter: “Zanna and I take our meals on bare carpets. / We eat dust and splinters and drink our own blood. / Saint, vampire, old at twenty-six, / Caleb.” Such serious sentiment is melodramatic, but conceivably serves as a contrast to the lighter verse from earlier in the text; the power of Walker’s paradoxes and juxtaposition of concepts remains promising.
Always attentive and truth-seeking, Walker’s voice is vibrant with musicality and tones of hope. He shuffles between serious play and serious drama, and shows his best stuff when he merges the two; he is as likely to reference Whitman (the book title) as he is to to reference Richard Pryor (the epigraph), always building bridges, always seeing patterns. The world from Walker’s perspective is endearing and poignant, yet humorous and promising. Shuffle and Breakdown exhibits a poet who is not only in tune with what works in contemporary poetics, but who is actively exploring the possibilities of the craft.