Tom Hunley


Three Emerging Poets Walk Into a Bar...

Recycle Suburbia. By Dan Nowak. (Modesto, CA: Quercus Review Press, 2008). 65 pages. Paperback: $12.00, ISBN # 978-0-9743070-7-7.

The Bird Hoverer. By Aaron Belz. (Kenmore, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2007). 84 pages. Paperback: $14.95, ISBN # 1-933368-52-7.

Sudden Anthem. By Matthew Guenette. (Aptos, CA: Dream Horse Press, 2008). 76 pages. Paperback: $17.95, ISBN # 978-0-9777182-4-5.




At the beginning of his essay, “Listening and Making,” Robert Haas remembers a boisterous guy in a bar “loudly but confidentially” describing in explicit detail the sexual conquest he hopes to embark on that evening. A female barfly overhears and puts the guy in his place, using equally explicit language. Haas’s reaction? He scans the meter of the guy’s brag and the woman’s put-down. “Rhythms and rhythmic play make texture in our lives,” explains Haas. I’ve never been a bartender, but for years I was a regular at a writer’s bar in Seattle called The Ditto, which featured weekly open mics and a manual typewriter at each table. If I ever were to tend bar, I would like to follow Haas’s lead and listen to my customers with a prosodist’s ear, and I would like my bar to be a place for artists and poets and characters to congregate, a convergence point for lay priests, knee-dropping in religious ecstasy; poets rapt in recitation of memorized dithyrambs; and those who can say, with Kenneth Patchen, “I feel drunk all the time.”


* * * *


The bar is called Poemeleon. You can be anyone you want here, but management is trying to add some humor to the place’s ambience just now. The first poet to walk in, Dan Nowak, has an anger-tinged sense of humor (or a humor-tinged anger, maybe). He orders a cheap vodka (“Promoting World Peace”), downs it and announces “I will force the jukebox to play Journey and Skynard / for the moonlit, star-light crowd” (“Picking Up Spares”). One of our televisions is showing a Bengals-Rams game, and Nowak quips, “Pants that tight / should be dancing to Madonna” (“Projecting Primalism”). He tells me that he’s beat from waiting tables all day – “I told people our salad / dressings for eleven hours” (“Burroughs at Midnight”). Another of our televisions is showing a NASCAR race that gives Nowak a headache, the roar of engines “so loud it drowns out / the beer tabs hissing / like a cockroach” (“Finally Understanding Frost”). He stays and gets drunk — on vodka and beer, yes, but also on words, words, words. He says, “Red or blue, words don’t care / which side they’re on, they are / for Christianity and gay marriage” (“Naked and Ugly, It’s What We Love”).


The second poet to stride into the bar is Aaron Belz. His doctoral dissertation was called “‘Something Mechanical Encrusted on the Living’: The Influence of Popular Comedy on Modern American Poetry, 1900-1960,” and his sense of humor seems to be mainly of the precocious-schoolboy-putting-a-whoopee-cushion-on-the-nun’s-chair variety. He orders the usual, and I serve him wine in a communion glass. He never drinks so much that he collapses; in this he resembles a wedding ring or God (“Things that Tend Not to Collapse”). Belz speaks with reverence about dead poets, e.g. “I love you and miss you after all these centuries” (“Pushkin”). He speaks with much less reverence about contemporary poets, e.g. “I do not like poems that refer to pink scabs on bottoms! / Just as a general rule, mind you, Bruce Beasley!” (“Bruce Beasley!”) and “your verse / seems drenched in what one might / call rain, or in at least a poet’s rain, / which strikes me as not quite the same / as other kinds of rain, Eric Pankey” (“Heartwood”). Belz’s New York School playfulness and awe at the wonders of this world stand side by side with his yearning for another world, his earnest, Wordsworthian intimations of immortality, as when he speaks of “the bastion of God,” how “Everyone wants to visit it, but it is way up on a precipice” (“Seven Bastions”) and when he calls upon the “Sisters Among Serpents, and Sisters Who Sleep Sitting Up . . . and also Sisters of the Come-Hither Looks Suppressed” to “come close to us now, and here, in the hour of our need” (“O Sisters”).


The evening wouldn’t be complete without a third poet entering the bar, so in comes Matthew Guenette, swaggering through the swinging doors, “his face / a hijacked car, his eyes headlights // bearing down a dark ravine” (“Vortex: The Super-Sized Supermarket”). The life of this and every party, Guenette orders a martini (“Li Poem”) and brings the house down with clever, outrageous Whitmanian lists (“Seven Busboy Propositions,” “Abstract Sex Positions,” and “Other Items from Occam’s Bathroom”). He keeps everyone guessing by taking various literary and pop cultural forms and making them new. For example, his “Sestina Aguilera” isn’t a sestina at all, though Guenette manages to convince his audience that it is one, just as he somehow convinces them that the pop princess “invented the word / agnostic in 1869 because she was tired / of being called an atheist // by Baudelaire and Mallarmé. He further deconstructs pop culture in the prose poem, “Silver Spoons: The Lost Episodes,” which describes, among other things, “a 33 second episode” in which “Ricky, in a room filling up with sunlight, contemplates the sublime and then immediately feels stupid.” In a prose poem reminiscent of the experimental writer Michael Martone, Guenette reinvents a mainstay of contemporary poetry books, the acknowledgements page, claiming with a straight face that some of his poems have appeared in “Best American Grocery Lists 2006,” “C=R=A=P=Q=U=A=R=T=E=R=L=Y,” “McSweeney’s Rejects,” and “Poet Whore.” Guenette makes a nod to another avant-garde tradition, Oulipo, in “Popular Children’s Games: A Pre-20th Century Count Up,” written in an Oulipo form called the snowball. Laughter may indeed be the best medicine, and Guenette offers up a heavy dose of it.


In “Listening and Making,” Haas goes on to draw connections between shamanism, spirit possession, Pentecostal religion, and the rhythms of poetry. “Because rhythm has direct access to the unconscious,” Haas writes, “because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is a power.” Curiously, he leaves alcoholic inebriation out of the list. To me, the impulse behind it is of a piece with the impulse behind these other forms of ecstasy. Haas doesn’t discuss humor, either, but I think we tell jokes for the same reason: to transport ourselves and each other out of a place of alienation and ennui. When we laugh we leave ourselves for a moment, we give up control for a moment, and it is a kind of release. Three poets walk into a bar, but this isn’t a joke. They could be walking into a temple, into a revival meeting, into an art gallery where a poetry reading is taking place. They could be stepping out of their bodies and entering each other’s poems, drawn by a force field; by an irresistible, violent power; by the new glue that binds books and readers together. The bar is called Poemeleon, and there’s a welcome mat there, an invitation, come on in.


Recycle Suburbia: recommended for fans of Federico García Lorca, Kenneth Fearing,

Mark Doty, Richard Siken, and Molly Peacock

The Bird Hoverer: recommended for fans of John Ashbery, Brother Antoninus, Louis

Zukofsky, Matthew Zapruder, and Matthea Harvey

Sudden Anthem: recommended for fans of Dean Young, James Tate, David Berman, Li

Po, and Johnny Cash



Tom C. Hunley is an assistant professor of English at Western Kentucky University and the director of Steel Toe Books ( His latest books are Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach and Octopus <>.