The title of Nick Courtright’s full-length debut suggests a book of jokes. However, the well-wrought poems in Punchline undermine these expectations. The joke is actually on all of us, the poet included. In Punchline, Courtight peers beneath the surface of the joke of existence, to see if he can better understand the comedian, the joke-writer, or the Grand Master of Ceremonies, if any of these exist.
Courtright’s revelatory odes to the mysteries of philosophy and science come right out of the visionary tradition, though they are filled with enough irony and self-doubt to avoid soapbox crankery (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In fact, it is Courtright’s embrace of the principles of uncertainty that give these poems life and beg us to re-read them, in order to be interrogated by them again and again. Courtright has the cold, hard stare of the soothsayer; it just so happens that everything in his world appears to be out of focus.
In the poem “He Does Not Throw Dice” (the title comes from Albert Einstein’s famous quotation on the nature of God), we meet the limits of human perception. Even if it were possible to break through the “lawlessness/ of the subatomic world” and discover a “wholly predictable” system of certainty, we humans are damned by our “short/ [….] attention span[s]/in regards to the unseen, or the unseeable.” Our only method of arriving at truth is a flawed one. The human mind is built too narrowly for the task at hand.
Maybe that’s not exactly an LOL moment, but Punchline is filled with the kinds of howlers that got men like Job and Arjuna into trouble with their superiors. Courtright is inflicted with a rare intellectual disease: he must know “Why?” but yet is not convinced there is an answer. The difference between Punchline and The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita is that, here, no god shows up to clarify divine law, to shout, cajole, or give orders. Instead, Courtright is left spinning his elegant guesses, concocting “thirteen explanations/for every way/ we’ve failed,” though he knows “no explanation for the thirteen explanations.” (“The Garden”) Anytime Courtright gives us an answer, he follows it up with more questions.
In fact, the punchlines in these poems are actually riddles, as in the book’s opener, “The Despot.” Here, humans “seek the face of God/ and find it/on the internet. Maybe/ the face of God was always there, in the sand itself,/ and the ant had access to it.” The twists and turns in these lines are masterful, mimicking the circuitous motion common to contemplative traditions. They also highlight a consistent theme of the book, the quest to unite macrocosm and microcosm. Above, ants are granted access to God made manifest in grains of sand (perhaps an allusion to Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”). In the book’s closing poem, it’s the mosquito’s turn:
are harbingers of misfortune
dealt the hand of Judas—
should they have our mercy?
The poet of Punchline is always stepping carefully, not just in deference to the myriad small creatures of the world, but also in terms of poetic lineation. Grand, sweeping themes (mysticism, physics, mythology, cosmology) are crafted into terse lyrics, as if Emily Dickinson had revised Leaves of Grass on her tiny desktop, under an ominous light.
Whitman himself appears in “Where I am Going, Where Have I Been,” (the title is a Joyce Carol Oates allusion) but in almost epigrammatic form:
Father Whitman made a point
to note how we shall become
and the grass shall become us. In others words,
with enough time
grass to grass, stone to stone, myth to myth.
At this point, we need not point out that Courtright is obsessed with circles, cycles, and strange loops, further evidence that seekers never reach an answer; they always find themselves back at the beginning. For example, in “Worry to Die,” he conjures the Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, and speculates that “we are all just snakes’ tails/ in the mouths of snakes.” Also, in “Fun with Agnosticism,” which uses the extinction of dinosaurs as the starting point for a meditation on the transitory nature of existence, we get the following vertigo-inducing insight:
Our chasing of the tails we’re attached to
is a good time, if dizzying,
and we can make some sense of it. If we’re lucky,
if we move fast enough
it seems our tireless, circuitous blur
is a perfect circle.
If there is a punchline here, a take-away point, it certainly isn’t the bombast and certainty of a Walt Whitman, who, in “Song of Myself” is confident that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars” and who knows, somehow, that he will survive death. Courtright isn’t quite so sure, and this makes his mysticism much more contemporary, informed by the post-modern condition and the wackiness of quantum physics. However, like Whitman, Courtright looks to the things of this world for proof, as in his title poem:
is the Proof then,
in the ringtones of college students, the darning
needles of grandmothers
in the cockroach that is legion
over eternity—and in the certainty of the pious
who cradle a child
from within the fury of happiness
Though the events of this world might be unexplainable, they are the only evidence we have. According to the above poem, the “roadsigns of proof” we spot on our journey through life give evidence not of some careful design (which may or may not exist) but of “the abstract/ absurdity of living.” These are poems that insist on knowing the truth, and, yet, insist it cannot be known.
It is this gap in knowing that gives the poems in Punchline their space to breathe, and so, we should be grateful for ignorance. Nick Courtright is beckoning us to get in on the great cosmic joke. These are poems that render the mysterious imprecision of the universe with precision, and a good deal of wit and insight to boot.
Andrew Neuendorf teaches literature and writing at Des Moines Area Community College. His poetry and prose have appeared in such places as Northwest Review, Sentence, Quarter After Eight, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and An Introduction to the Prose Poem. More information can be found at www.andrewneuendorf.com