Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Smiling

Smiles of the Unstoppable is a 60-page collection of 34 poems, each one about a page to two pages long. It’s a really nicely designed book. Magic Helicopter Press released it on January 1. (Magic Helicopter, of course, is the press run by HTMLGiant’s own super-productive Mike Young.) At first glance the cover image appears to be a kid mid-puke, but if you keep looking you’ll see what it actually is — a kid bobbing for apples. The poems are similar.

On perhaps two occasions I have bobbed for apples. That’s because I am a churchgoer. I have also carefully sliced the edge away from an overturned cup of flour, hoping to keep the penny from collapsing in the center. I think that’s irrelevant and won’t say any more about it.

The copyright page of Smiles gives a list of keywords in the book. Shelve it with “God,” “hate,” “ambergris” (whatever that is), “Toby,” “jovial ass whippings,” or a number of other uncanny garden paths into Bredle’s poems. Bredle is a master of the take-back, or the spiral out, which seems to be his main device. One line will posit something and the lines that follow it will realign the perspective, so you’re never sure who’s talking, or what they’re saying.

Which isn’t nearly as frustrating as it sounds. Take the opening of “Red Soda,” the first poem in the book.

Como se dice please don’t kill me
is a question I hope never to ask someone while on vacation
is a thought many people have before falling asleep at night
is something I once read in a guidebook
to a place I may never visit
is something you once wrote on a piece of paper

Garden path sentences are one of my favorite things, and this book is full of them. The effect is unsettling fun, but it also opens the reading up to the vulnerability in the poems. When I’m reading along to find out who is actually saying what, when I’m open to Bredle’s declarative sentences being attributed to a speaker to be named later, (the Orgy Master, say, or neighbors or most people), then I feel the impact of lines like “at the time I was devastated/as I stood in the lot of a supermarket where I’d no longer be able to shop” more fully.

Lines like, “The dog is soon captured and put down” are always compelling, but more so when the poet is constantly redefining the terms of the poem.

The final two lines of the final poem are gut wrenching:

I am not ready to die right now on this airplane
I am not ready to die right now on this airplane.

My point is that those lines could be stupid but they aren’t. They work because of the way the poems are constantly shifting. I think it’s, um, damn daring to end a book with that artificial-seeming sentiment, but the feat succeeds. Read it. You’ll see that sincere emotionality finds its way in.

There’s more than just shaggy dogs in this book, though. “Moby Orgy” made me guffaw with its remarkable rhyming flow. “Information Kiosk” is compelling social commentary. And the details Bredle writes into every piece — detail of language and of information, like in the line “Man, that dude looks exactly like Scott,” or the entirety of the ecstatic poem “Red Cross” — are appealingly American. They seem plucked from my own life even though I doubt much of anything in this book “actually happened.” But it’s all so off-kilter it’s on.

You can read a cool interview with Jason Bredle and Ben Mirov at BOMB. You can read Class Project, a chapbook that features several poems from the book, at Chapbook Genius. You can find out more and buy Smiles of the Unstoppable at Magic Helicopter.