THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 
Manhattan Chronicles
Review of Caroline Hagood's LUNATIC SPEAKS
by Hansel Castro 
 
 
I, too, dislike it. Usually. “Ignore it,” would be far more accurate. Sure, a neat poetic image might fly on my face every now and then. A nice phrase may try to nestle in my thinning hair. But when the poems come in a hopeful, feathered flock, I react like the average American male ages 18 to 64. “Not my thing,” I demur. It’s not antagonism. I don’t kick at them in a prosaic fit. I simply retreat politely. There are thick novels to deal with, bone-cracking football games on TV, superheroes exploding on three or more dimensions at the movies. “Things important beyond all this fiddle.”

                Which SHOULD mean I have no business reviewing Caroline Hagood’s new collection, “Lunatic Speaks.” But how could I stop myself? Here is poetry that grabbed me by the imaginary tie, smacked me around, and did NOT forgive my indolent ignorance. Poetry that dragged me through streets where everyday life was newly revealed. Poetry that made me CARE for all this fiddle.  

                I WANTED to keep on disliking poetry, really. I searched through “Lunatic Speaks” looking for painfully precious lines, for boring polemics, and predictable hand-wringing. I couldn’t find any of that. Here are some things I found instead:

An intelligence that practically makes the page vibrate;

A love of words and a choreographer’s understanding of how they dance upon the page;

An eye for the details of our common experience that  leaves nothing unquestioned or unseen;

And a sense of HUMOR! I know! So rare! And this isn’t light verse; there are no rhyming tricks, no stand-up shows.  The laugh-out-loud moments in “Lunatic Speaks” NEVER make the poems feel slight- instead make them reach deeper.

 Take a keeper like “Planning my Own Funeral.” I read that title and steel myself for gloomy emo self-absorption. Instead I got an economic story that builds up toward a final moment that… Well, why don’t we walk through it?

The poem begins with the speaker considering a proposed classroom exercise: “How would we like to die?” The setting is a poetry class, and the understanding is that the topic is to be approached as “an absurdity,” an alternative to “what was your summer like?” But right away, the setting is exploded: imagination breaks past classroom expectations, because it’s beyond this speaker (or should I say Ms. Hagood?) to NOT think seriously about “afterworld investments.” “Freezing to nothing” might be fitting for a poet- but only for a much more boring poet than Ms. Hagood, who imagines her departure from this realm:

“(…)in a red, screeching, open-backed truck,

Hair streaming behind, Tom Waits’ ‘Closing Time’

On the radio. As for the funeral,

Let’s just be clear. I want bulldogs there.”

I don’t know what’s better, Tom Waits or the bulldogs, (which made me laugh-out-loud, I confess) but what I know is that a very distinct personality is sketched out in those four lines, one that doesn’t apologize for the red truck it drives through funeral (and poetic) conventions. You have the humor I mentioned, you have the marshalling of words, the observation of cultural detail, but the poem isn’t building up to a funny line about death and the entourage of absurdities that go with it: if it was, I wouldn’t be writing this review, would I?

 In the next stanza, we travel from funeral arrangements to arrangements for LIVING- and here is where humor gives way to depth, wisdom, and sensitivity:

“But before taking to the truck, I have to survive

All the changes that take place within me daily

As I wade through the invisible layers between things.”

And so we have a poet’s survivalist manifesto. This is how a poet must negotiate existence before the final truck ride, seeing through to the hidden. It’s not lunacy, I don’t think, to see through to the hidden, the “invisible layers,” to clear a path of words through the darkness. Seeing through to the hidden is what brilliance is supposed to do.

Had the poem ended there, it would have been satisfying enough, but Ms. Hagood changes tone again, (always smoothly) to draws us deeper for a final confession about “the riddle of (her) childhood stage fright”:

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be seen,

But that I wanted to be seen too much.”

And there we have the epiphany that is ours as much as hers:  the explanation for a funeral that HAS to involve bulldogs. The ultimate reason why poets- all artists, really- do what they do: out of fear that the universes contained within us might go unseen, unspoken, and (why not admit it?) un-admired. No danger here of that. Ms. Hagood now demands the attention of any poetry reader- and with this collection she rewards that attention fully. She’ll be seen.

As for me, I now dislike “Poetry” a little less.
 
 
Hansel Castro is a Miami-based writer and cultural critic who blogs prolifically at http://hallucina.blogspot.com. He's currently serializing a rather quirky re-telling of "The Count of Montecristo" at http://thesuperabridgedcountofmontecristo.blogspot.com.