Tavel’s new chapbook Red Flag Up consists of epistolary poems written in smoke, fumes, screams, and Sharpies, on the insides of t-shirts, soup can labels, a crumpled installation guide for a Chicco car seat, and many other objects bound to daily life.
Who even writes letters anymore? Who even writes poetry? The inner and outer surfaces of Tavel’s day to day artifacts are the ideal tablets to record his zealous, romantic, exhilarating pathos. The result is both quotidian and other-worldly. Songs as letters? Tavel is perhaps the love child of Blake and Whitman, as if he were writing letters to poetry, to the impossibility of it in our hectic lives, which is exactly why the wanting of it hurts so good.
Tavel is a four hundred pound fan of the alternating line length. For him, there’s good reason. Changing tempo from line to line modulates his almost breathless engagement with the poem’s subject. Ever hear of the Triggering Town? Rather than avoid it, Tavel edits the newspaper, and tosses the rolled up, rubber-banded news to all the neighbors. It’s a form of “going places.” In his “Letter to Dubie Written on the Screams of a Feral Cat Being Tortured by the Neighbor Boy,” Tavel journeys from listening to some casual torture next door to a one-night stand in Kansas:
[No windows keep]
out the sound so I leave them
open until the feral’s screeching turns
plaintive whimper and whimper
turns to the soft colloquy of crickets.
I’ve slept with this language
forever, including but not limited to
that muggy Kansas night I ravished
a brunette tomboy from Kismet
on a Pawnee rag unfit
for scabbied kittens. The prairie sky
was a giant ant. Verily we hear
the clay-crunch of the boy’s shovel now.
I fear it is the only angel here.
I’ve slept with this language forever. Tavel is very focused on his subject, but nicely loses control of the many associations it evokes, waking up the tiger in each poem and writing letters on its roar. Dubie, the persona poet, may be the most celebrated of Tavel’s invoked spirits in this collection, but most of the poets he writes to, with the odd wife and some distant Czech cousins thrown in for good measure, require a modest search engine.
This book is why chapbooks are making a comeback. Large poetry volumes are too heavy for an airy project like this one. There’s only so many poems any one person can write in the same voice-dependent style without slipping into caricature. Tavel’s chapbook gives us just enough to marvel at. In “Letter to Brautigan Written on the Care Instructions for a Guppy That Cost $2.47 and Died on the Drive Home” the reader delights in such images as “His widow’s / ache is a set of drapes that never open” and “In memoriam / reads the yellow sash that droops / from its daily scalding by July.”
This poem incorporates the mess of Brautigan’s forty-four caliber suicide. The mess of a neighbor dying when his Suburban crashes. The mess of buying a fish for your son only to have the guppy die on the drive back from Fins, Feathers, and Paws. It is finally about coming to peace with rage and getting on from there, humbled by life:
Instead I dream a sleepy cabin
reeking of dandruff and day-old trout
where you can recline upon a cot to hear
the floorboards gossip of riffles
and corn silk bristle in a river breeze
three thousand miles away—A cabin
so calm you can hear my boy tussle
and jabber in his crib the only words
he knows from a song that goes
like a diamond in the sky.
Tavel prospers with these formal prompts. There’s so much going on in his mind he needs a path to follow, and letters to other poets are as good a path as any. In “Letter to Ruefle Written with Sharpie Inside a Serengeti National Park T-Shirt, Men’s Size Small,” Tavel manuevers his way from apology: “I’m no biologist, but the crickets / probably number ten thousand / on our half acre lawn, bolting / into the mowers mouth so quickly / that even when I zig zag it’s impossible / to save them.” Cotton Mather developed this rhetorical device almost four centuries ago, called “Acto-Stylo.” In brief, a negative, I’m no biologist, followed by a transition word, but, equals a positive.
And so, the speaker in fact is a biologist. He knows what he’s talking about based on experience, his “acto-stylo.” Tavel resumes his poem with yet another transition: “But for the toads I’ll halt / a row and let the engine sputter / into an emphysemic wheeze…Just today / I saved a tiny arboreal of an exotic / darker jade than the usual species / flecked specks of orange that caught / my eye in high dandelions.” Like Frost, Tavel is after what can be discovered on a less traveled lane; but unlike Frost, he is pushing a lawnmower, a “helicopter ruckus.” The tension spirals down to a pin prick of time and space: “Minutes later I spotted a milky sac bulging / grotesquely on a spider nigh / upon her appointed hour to burst / dozens of tiny scramblers.”
This extreme focus results in a charismatic leap, to the thought of startled young nuns. The speaker grinds the spider with his boot heel, crushing his own memory of St. Mary’s and concludes by addressing Ruefle: “You’ve asked / for my definition of poetry. / This seems as good as any.” Spiritual desperation, rhetorical virtuosity, ornate, intense—these are some of the words Tony Hoagland uses to describe Mary Ruefle, and we can see that all of these poets Tavel invokes are all his close relations in some way.
I think a lot of poets must have grown up eating food off plates with triangles in them, never really enjoying what happens when different foods touch. Writing poems as letters allows the poet to combine first and second person voices, both indirect and direct speech, in one serving where the voices touch.
In one of Tavel’s finest, “Letter to Hathaway Writ on Water,” the speaker is gruff, impure: “Spring is a green orgasm here / and the memory of our last bitch blizzard / fades like a bad lay in Wichita.” Let me guess, was it on a Pawnee rug? Was the rug on the floor of Wichita poet Michael Hathaway’s house? The holiday season past, the slam poetry of it maybe, is now only more yard trash and old Kwanza letters fallen behind the radiator. It has lost its value and there needs to be a Pentecostal return “to cure America of itself” or even to cure poetry of itself. What is that cure? In this poem, ironically it’s a sin, a trespass. The speaker and his son have a favorite place to hike: “Often we trespass / a winding gravel lane that leads / to a solitary pier where, sunburnt / our ghosts waver ginning / in the Nanticoke’s brackish film. / One river is enough to bless and quench / the temple fires if we keep it pure.”
Tavel, you keep writing these poems. The next round is on me.
Red Flag Up, By Adam Tavel. Kattywompus Press, 2013, 22 pages, $12, ISBN: 1936715473.