Invoking Willem Dafoe, Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling, Shia Labouf, Nicolas Cage, and Peter Falk while also tapping into American Psycho, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Instagram—Paul Zits, author of the previous collections Exhibit, Massacre Street, and Leap-Seconds—creates an ironic speaker who marauds the earth searching only its “Instagrammability” and interested merely in “manufacturing a ceaseless / ta-da” in his latest book of poems, I Wish I Could Be Peter Falk. What results in the three sections of spacious, nonchalant stanzas of this collection is an exploration of all the ways media makes the man, or at least the fractured man-child. The book is mostly spoken in dialogue with a female romantic partner, and the two have a codependent superficiality that makes nature unnatural and significance housed in the right t-shirt. Soused ultimately in a voice examining hollow narcissism–even the dedication is “for me (& Ryan Gosling)—is a speaker questing “for the ‘ego death’.” It’s this central tension—egoism vs longing for egolessness connection—that drives the humour, pathos, loneliness, sexiness, and the melancholy of Zits’ fourth collection.
In “A billion Google images” Zits’s speaker declares himself “a natural raconteur” who “can also clean your clock” with a threatening “need to search out / your weaknesses.” The move to project this declaration of masculinity exudes insecurity, a hyper-competitive/comparative approach to the world around him that he is constantly trying to “out-alpha.” But with no true physical threat (or purpose), he turns to fashionable posturing, to wearing just the right accessories and participating in just the right activities, drinking “goat milk with spider-silk protein” and “rain water squeezed from moss.” Fashion choices become life choices. He and his female beloved interlocutor are codependently judgmental, often critiquing (and complimenting) each other with brand-critical observations like, “She reads Dan Brown, / attends Pink concerts, / and orders Philadelphia rolls.” It’s a condescending voice at times, as if mocking her for being vapidly not hip enough, a voice, though, that is really self-assessing of its own artificiality. The modern Ozymandias decrees in “For Nicolas Cage”:
Even my hair is confident,
like a meringue peak.
It looks snapped on,
and welded into place.
It is the purest crystallization
like those neat pyramids.
It has one of consumerism’s
Most irresistible cocktails:
real-world practicality, with
a shot of lifestyle fantasy.
The book brims with self-aware laughs, but the early part of the collection still sets the reader up to judge this speaker harshly (mimicking his assumed own self-judgement) as even he admits he is “a crime story / in search of a moral center.” And the speaker’s idols come from the pages of all the latest men’s journals as section one starts with an epigraph from Ryan Gosling that reads, “A lot of these things feel like quotes that you’ve said, but you haven’t said them.” Gregory Peck’s pecks and Uncle Buck’s trench coat also make cameos. This detached sense of missing, displaced, stolen, and commodified identity permeates the poems, forcing the speaker to build a self out of nothing, and that newly built self comes with assembly instructions via media and social media. It necessitates appearance-performance. The schism within leads, in the poem “Where the f– are you?” to “[l]ooking in the mirror / (…) like seeing a porn film / come on by mistake.” Conceited and defeated, like an old man on Tinder, we hear him declare, in “For Shia Labouf”:
Today I am searching
for ancient light—
looking for a purpose-built backdrop
a sun salutation.
It’s an effect that comes at dire cost as the speaker, in “It’s all about exploring futuretopias,” needs assistance to manage life under perpetual “surveillance cameras / scowling at [him], / capturing the Zeitgeist.” The speaker then turns this into more faultfinding observations of the mirror-like date who “is trying to produce / the ultimate selfie” and
measuring her childhood
through the deaths
of different forms
of social media.
Though the voice manoeuvres in ways that make him sound both dismissable and even pitiably hateable, there’s a sense all along that it’s a broken entity seeking repair, as in this moment from “My little self-repair”:
There is a scab on my shin
by pink tissue.
My little self repair
is almost complete.
We gradually enter a speaker who wants to appreciate and believe in nature, but clumsily manages only persistent comparisons between nature and artificiality—his “Dawn-simulating / nighttime-shading system” or the sense that there’s a “mall where we think a lemon tree should be”—like it’s all a rehearsal for a real show that never comes. “There is dark and strange stuff / sloshing inside of me,” he says in “My bombproof tote” after watching a Rambo movie, and perhaps the core of this book lies in the juxtaposing forces, to use the poet’s terms, of loneliness and sexiness, as its speaker tries, in “Genteely distressed,” to crystallise “loneliness / and make it feel sexy / and immortal.”
Grim and prescient as some of the themes sound, there’s a lot to laugh at in these poems with titles like “The perfect Canadian pores”; “Let’s talk about sweatpants”; and “I am a thinking woman’s fetish object.” The sexiness of creating an allure for himself breeds an unnatural alienation reminiscent of the Marxist critique of workers who don’t wholly get to connect to the products of their labour. It’s there in lines like “I feel the kind of a sad you feel / looking at the microscope slides (…) / of Albert Einstein’s brain.” In reaction, by the end, Zits’s speaker goes full mantra, “practicing looking / at a distant point” and repeating words until his “own name / sounds like / just someone [he] know[s].” This cinematic nonchalance, this glib bro-esque genre gives way to a desperate desire for memory, for something real and whole, telling the reader in “For Willem Dafoe”: “This is like a diary. // There are only so many time machines left.” It’s a seeking backward, earlier than childhood, a priori where the shapeless nature of the manufactured self can find its platonic form, a shape that feels true and resolute. A place in memory with “a clutter of memorabilia, / where [he] run[s] around forming a cloud, / coaxing it into shape.”
Bill Neumire’s second collection of poems, #TheNewCrusade, is available from Unsolicited Press. He serves as poetry editor for Verdad.