by Michael Harper
$10 / Buy from Snoot Books
Leaving poetry readings with my women writer friends, it is not unusual to hear gripes from certain Betty Friedans among us about the Old Boys’ Club of Portland Poets, the Old Boys’ Club of Literature, of the Galaxy, etc. When I hear these statements, I usually reside in a state of polite ambivalence—what would we like these men writers to do, begin their reading with a formal acknowledgement of their privileged white penis status? Well, this is exactly what Michael Harper did at the debut reading of his chapbook, More Surface, one summer rooftop night. Harper’s reading began with the chapbook’s first poem: “Growing Up With A Middle-Class White Penis.” This poem places the reader at a ground zero from which things, phenomena, feelings, etc. are both reported and questioned with an essential ruthlessness. For example, we move from lines like “the penis bones’ connected to the no-crying bone” to “But molting complacency is a naturally learned yearning.” One of my favorite lines from another Portland poet, Emily Kendal Frey, is: “Am I smart enough to be androgynous?” Well, Michael Harper’s poetry is that smart. More Surface exhibits a vast range of perception, voice, form and bravery.
Poems from the chapbook’s first section, “Utopiates,” wander through the device-laden, cyborgian streets of today’s consciousness—hashtags, buzzfeeds, instagram, a wasteland of apps. From “The Conjugation of Friendship:”
to make the ceiling of your bedroom look like stars
because looking at actual stars will make us feel
small & alone
Do you think anyone is staring up
at this same sky app as us?
I don’t know dear it’s not done loading
These lines expose the human needs and fears underpinning our reliance on, our addictions to, our devices. An actual starry sky that once incited wonder and awe, replaced by a technological rendition, a utopiate, that creates an illusion of control and significance. Along with dark humor, this piece possesses a simple sadness, an unabashed isolation: “I feel my hands/ are telephones.” This desire for connection expressed in casual language echoes poets like Frank O’Hara, his Lunch Poems. Works like “The Demollification of Waking” also transcend the “cavern of the cell phone” for the heights of the heart, but here the sentiment is bald and dark, of “migratory flocks of fear.” Fear of getting up in the morning, of staying in bed, fear of repeating past mistakes because what has even been learned:
eight years ago and have to do it
all again knowing just as much
as I don’t know now.
My fear builds an altar in the hearts of others
where I learn that the opposite of fear is losing yourself.
There is a phoenixesque gloriousness in these lines as they move from the humble admission of not having known, of still not knowing, and the frightening realization that the past never could be made right or anything other than what it was. How wonderfully human and brave, this trepidation. Fear, the new bravery. Pussy, the new hero.
The chapbook’s second section, “More Failed Crosswords,” is a series of erasures. These are shortish poems that pack the dense punch of L=A=N=G=A=U=G=E/conceptual/avant garde stuff. I think of Rae Armantrout and Werther’s Originals candies—all deserving of a slow savor in order to notice the unfolding nuances of the caramel-poem experience:
a nerve-shattering limbo
sweetheart of the far
more fragmentary theater
Others in the erasure mix use tone in playfully-didactic ways that may harken Kay Ryan, Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein, for that shading together of discursive purpose and randomness, like this one, “Released Sheep:”
Wolves want combinations
eliminate wolves by complex creations
You’ll be clumsy at first but
you’ll notice you’ve learned something
Fun, right? But it looks easier than it is. These poems exhibit Harper’s skills besides the narrative, and it’s always exciting to have ambidextrous as well as androgynous poets on the scene.
But now, to be fair, I should complain. Typical casualties of boldness and bravery are overreaching and a lack of substantiation. I see this in the poem “In the Future Ryan Gosling.” This is an amazing idea, but it could be an entire graphic novel in verse. (Harper, will you please write this!?) The poem begins: “In the future Ryan Gosling is the only man alive,” and is guided along by a dystopian, fairy-tale narration:
These ideas are fantastic, but more could be written vertically, to flesh out and elaborate the themes. As is, the singular, smart detail about J.M. Barrie lends a dismissive irony that diverges from the emotional center from which this poem seems to originate—from which many of Harper’s poems seem to originate. It is an origin akin to the idealistic social vision underlying many great satires and dystopias.
More Surface has two final sections, “Like This” and “Who Lives Underground.” The former resides in eros:
I Know You Were Just Crying, But
I like it when you look at me
with oceans like that.
Sigh. These poems are romantic and heartachy, all that good (also brave), gobbledygook of love. Read them, and then read the chapbook’s last part, “Who Lives Underground,” to be braced by thanatos:
Everyone stands around & talks
about eternity when we are
reminded that nothing is eternal
which reminds me that we are all eternal
and that’s why it’s hard when things come to an end
These poems take us to the baritone notes. They evidence a mind and heart (and the in-between) that have run the merciless hamster wheels of coping to emerge with a hard-won eloquence in reflection.
This is several hells of a chapbook—a mirror of our fractured existence and a vision for more than categorized, technological animals that vainly attempt to navigate said fractures; these poems live shatteredly, with the courage to protest and acquiesce.
Sara Sutter wrote a chapbook, Sirenomelia, published by Poor Claudia. Other works appear in The Awl, Fence, Propeller, The Sentimentalist and various fine venues.