The Floating Bridge
by David Shumate
University of Pittsburgh Press 2008
Reviewed by David Sewell
One of the more flaccid criticisms of poetry these days is that it involves a sort of cool kids’ club wherein poets write poems for other poets who write poems for other poets who write poems for other poets, and so on and so on, and none of it sells. The idea evoked is that of looking into a mirror into another mirror ad infinitum, while all the while keeping one eye on the witty, handsome, urbane, not-as-judgmental-and-conceited-as-everyone-says person doing all this looking. Anyway. The other side of the proverbial pineapple upside-down cake is that there is another kind of poetry—one that appeals to a wider audience and one that, therefore, sells. Absent from this wider audience, of course, are those cool, cool poets writing for other cool, cool poets.
That I happen to be cooler than a polar bear’s entrails (shout out to Francis the Savannah Chitlin’ Pimp) casts me less as the denizen of an igloo than of an overpriced Brooklyn apartment with inefficient steam radiators. But this review isn’t meant to be entirely about me. Hullo, hullo, then, to David Shumate (no relation) and his new book of prose poems called The Floating Bridge. As I’m (obviously) still in the process of reviewing the book, and my bathtub is a sort of exaggerated Petri dish at the moment, I can’t say for sure whether the book floats, though I’m willing to wager that it does.
Of course, you’re likely ratiocinating right now, it’s all a matter of relative densities, and seeing as the density of a perfect-bound acid-free-paper book, even one published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, is less than that of… Let me stop you right there, Poindexter. What I mean is that there’s nothing too heavy here, nothing too deep or dense or…like I already said, heavy. To wit: The title poem operates as a sort of metaphor for poetry (“Sometimes the bridge is small and inconspicuous. Like a poem.”), though, unfortunately, it’s not one your penny-loafers will be able to scamper across without becoming at least a little bit wet. The poem itself floats, being that it’s neither hammered down to any sort of reality nor able to rise high enough to be of much interest to anyone in the trees. Its failure to either launch or burrow is illustrative of the book as a whole’s major weakness.
The unbearable lightness of many of these poems is just that—unbearable. For instance, the idea behind “Trapped Inside a Haiku Poem” (mind you, a haiku poem, not a haiku refrigerator or a haiku elevator) is exactly as the title reads. And the payoff? Robes, beards, a cabin, an open door, Basho—just what we’d expect, and nothing that we wouldn’t. (Is a duel between Basho and Buson using mackerel as weapons too much to ask for?) “The Amateur Zen Master” forgoes beards but throws in a bald head and sandals and name-drops the tree-falling and one-hand-clapping koans, then has the spamminess to end, “Somewhere far away a whole forest comes crashing down.”
Whether employing wobbly metaphors or just shopworn ones, the poems’ tendency to assume some semi-dopey supposition and then imagineer twelve or fifteen prose lines exploring it in the most obvious detail is almost always unrewarding. A few examples: taking a bus to Gomorrah, being Gertrude Stein’s gardener, happening across a “dying park,” meeting one’s past selves, getting a call from Sancho Panza, paying a visit to Dalí, paying a visit to Picasso. These poems are too polite, too limp, and too stale to have much bite. Their musing nature smacks less of the high art of poetry than of the low kitsch of sentiment and well-wishes.
Calling someone’s poems musings is, to me anyway, a call to arms, and if such an attack were leveled at me or mine, I fear I’d have no choice but to bid adieu to détente and stand to defend their honor in a most chivalrous manner, as those who truly know me know is my wont. So, though I do dare to call a musing a musing here, I do so with the full understanding that calamity may hence befall me. Though, to be perfectly honest, judging from the poems on display, I’m fairly certain that, were I to meet their maker, he would instead attempt to hug me, and…no, no no, that won’t do either. This is sticky business, this.
Why exactly Shumate is such a dedicated suitor of the prose poem I can only speculate, but, unfortunately, the prose form employed here only encourages an intellectually and poetically lazy sort of poem. Too often the poems lean on extended metaphors, such as the floating bridge, that go either nowhere or exactly where the non-trepanned reader always expected them to. In “Metaphors” he says, “It is pleasing to know there are so many metaphors in this world.” I have to respectfully disagree. For instance, I could do without the one in “The Island of Nirvana.” It begins, “Today I’m giving my students a multiple-choice test about the / island of Nirvana.” Then: “Its principal exports are flower and honey.” Sounds good to me. And I have a new bikini I’ve been dying to wear. Let’s go. Ahh, but wait. “This island is really a state of mind. And each day we / burn the boats that would ferry us ashore.” A bit of a downer, really, but at least now I know why I’m always wearing a bikini in my mind.
The other problem with a world full of metaphors, to be perfectly obvious about it, is that metaphors, by definition, stand in place of something else. In these poems, the metaphors are like stand-ins for roles that were never in the script—like, say, if a group of gin devotees biffed off from the local gin-palace and decided to launch an attack on the forestage of the nearby theater, variously vomiting on and groping each other throughout rehearsals. An ill-fated metaphor, no doubt, but were I to take up the rubric laid out in The Floating Bridge, before you can say, “Pass the gin, guvnor!” one of these valiant souls would be donning a red hat, one would be down on bended knee ruminating about the price of tube socks, and one would be twirling and twirling and twirling round the scenery until he realized that sometimes ’tis not the world going round that makes the difference, or some such simpering rubbish.
What I mean is that, too often, there simply is nothing behind the metaphors, no strong reason why they’re employed at all, except, perhaps, just grist for the mill. When the emperor’s thong is showing, well, it seems the jig is up. And the metaphors deployed here are too obvious and of common trade to be of any real use. The book as a whole rarely escapes the burden its commonality of thought and language imposes. One way to look at the poems would be to laud their straightforward, unself-conscious language and themes, but that would be wrong. That would be to turn poetry into a mentally disabled child whose every flatulence is worthy of a hearty round of applause. Which is not to cast aspersions at our hypothetical child. I would much rather sit in audience of his sonic performance than have to read books of poems that trade in tying bows around packages of comforting drivel and try to hug me through the pages in a confused Zen Buddhist I’m Okay, You’re Okay kind of way.
Because I don’t think this kind of thing is okay. In fact, I think that such poems—completely safe to leave in a newborn’s cage overnight, with no risk that the babe will try to choke on them or that they’ll come alive in the dark and sit on the little squeaker—perhaps, paradoxically, can only do harm to poetry, by painting the whole thing in the sort of soft light favored by art world maverick Thomas Kinkade. I don’t imagine they will have any effect whatsoever on the form, but I do think it’s worth noting that, perhaps in the world of poetry, if ever you find yourself standing on a floating bridge, it may just be that you missed the boat.
To focus the periscope a bit more on the poems, too often the prose sentences clunk on like an old Plymouth in need of a tune-up. “The Bedouins of Paris” begins with, “The city of Paris appeared to a band of Bedouins somewhere out in the Sahara.” Why not just say, “Paris appeared…” Unless, of course, he believes that, if “The city” were elided, the reader might think of…what? That Ilian rapscallion? That horse-faced heiress? That Aqua Netted hair band that would eventually spawn into Poison? The next poem in the section, “Spring in Paris,” begins, “They say that Paris is a magical city, especially in the spring.” Who does? Oh right, everyone. Forever. Though, again, why are “they” doing all the saying in the poem. Why not just say, “Paris is a magical city, especially in the spring”? A page or so later, “The Kissing Institute” (French kissing, get it?) starts with another whisper from the bushes: “I’m told there are institutes in Paris where you can learn the ancient art of kissing.” Really? By whom?
I keep wondering, why can’t he just say something, instead of telling us what someone else said? I want him to stand up and stand behind something, to have an actual idea, to take some chances, instead of loosing this endless parade of what-ifs on us. But, my hopes be dashed, for every page brings more and more toast in milk: “Perhaps only women should be allowed to live in Paris” (“The Gates of Paris”), or “They say the way to tell if a fish is fresh is to look it in the eye (“Fresh Fish”).
On top of that, there is entirely too much conjecture in these poems. Too many “maybes,” “ifs,” “likes,” and the sort. A poetry of the imagination can be great, but if one is employing the imagination for nothing greater than to personify the north wind, or if all one finds in imagining what it would be like to visit Dalí is that “he greets us as the door on seven-foot stilts” and there’s a swimming pool filled with vinegar, well, not much has been gained.
The ending of the Dalí poem reiterates a point I made above. It reads: “But we remind him we have far to / travel. And it’s late. We point to the clock on the wall as proof. It / is almost fully melted.” Another groaner, it’s consistent with many endings in this book, which are routinely clumsy and try entirely too hard to resonate and/or promote the P in poetry. Whether these bad endings ruin the poems depends on how you feel about the logic of double-jeopardy.
Ultimately, debating whether these poems are any good is to miss the point completely, if I can condescend so flabbily (I can—if I may, I mean). To piggy-back on the book’s central metaphor, they’re safely in the mainstream of poetry, flowing along somewhere in the middle, content not to rock the boat. No doubt, many people, relatively speaking, will read these poems and will find doing so a pleasurable experience. And many people, of a different sort, will bung their noses up in the air, scanning the firmament for the ghost of T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens flitting by, to carry them off to some more rarefied altitude. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who cares? What’s clear is that these aren’t important poems. Depending on who you are, that means either everything or nothing.