I really enjoyed the complex, playful, sometimes impressively contorted rhythms of Mark Ducharme’s recent book of poems, Answer, published by BlazeVox. Those rhythms combine well with the book’s rich and frequently surprising vocabulary. While some lines in the book are bluntly political, more often the poems create a moody and shadowed (yet somehow also deadpan Midwestern) romanticism, one in which clarity of thought and action repeatedly finds itself deflected by misunderstanding and uncertainty.
Ducharme spins and alters the music of his lyrics in as varied a way as any lyric poet working at the moment, without ever losing their basic melodicism, as in the opening of “Imperfect World”:
To be a part
Of the treetops & furnaces
Where the only air to breathe is
Here——and we are
Stilled along the
way, to where
It is, we are going. Where is it, we
anymore? Only to where
In a moment, I’ll reappear
Ambiguous & startling
In your hair, replete, where I do not
You at all, or ever—or if I did
I would soon be about to go
Melancholy, satirical and bemused by turns, the poems feature tight torques, subtle ellipses and, given their refusal to embrace too much drama, a surprising degree of lyrical grandeur.
Ducharme is neither a writer of conventional lyric phrasing and imagery, nor of Stephen Burt-named New Thing minimalism, although his work sometimes veers in and out of both tendencies. The poems in Answer take more risks than most lyric poetry of the present day, given many unexpected leaps in phrasing and Ducharme’s willingness to stretch language to the point that, often, meaning nearly breaks down entirely.
At times the metaphorical deflections of any too direct subject matter give the poems a sleight-of-hand that delays or withholds, usually in fascinating ways, any too easy definition of a given poem’s subject. The result is that many pieces become moody plays of visual tones and twists of sound. Yet if the book threatens maybe too often to float off into a soundtrack-like aura for a dead-ended, befogged Middle America where nobody knows anything or anyone, the language can also jolt abruptly into directness, even as it retains its quick turns, such as in these lines from “Thank You For Protecting Polar Bears”:
The centaur cannot fold. It has a new life experience
as seen on Lifetime, where, punctual
You are a modernist in a doomsday client
State—suppressing all legible offers
To become someone who cannot hum
I am reasonably sure this is private, & has
Only minimum content appeal
I am still not kidding (33)
The book is full of numerous highlights, including the section of “Crisis Sonnets,” the sudden leaps intro more extreme avant word play like in the poem “Glutton Tongue,” or the direct simplicity of the repetition in “Possible Ode.”
There’s a tendency in the book to overuse a few constructions, like replacing a direct image with the phrasing “of what,” as in the lines, “like their use at night/In the where of what can quickly swerve” (“There is Something Original About This Message”, p. 45), a construction which appears again later in the same poem and numerous times elsewhere. Ultimately though, Answer is a collection of poems that asks many significant questions and is never afraid to reformulate language in ways that will best explore or, more often, deny the answers. As it turns out, according to Ducharme, too many of the answers people willingly accept are just too easy.