Tomorrow’s Living Room
Poems by Jason Whitmarsh
This is Jason Whitmarsh’s first book. It is winner of the 2009 May Swenson Poetry Award. And it is a deserving collection. One that may at first mislead you with its wit and simplicity. His deft casualness makes it possible to breeze through these poems without thinking of the odd statements being made. Indeed, in his citation, Billy Collins, who chose the book for the award, points out the “pleasurable disorientation” of the language, its “mixture of directness and imaginative surprise.” And the back of the dust jacket describes them as “alternately wry and dark.” These are all accurate observations of the surface textures, but to some extent, miss the point, miss why these poems are such a surprising tonal blend.
The opening poem is called “Forecasts” and is a grouping of four quatrains, all involving some sort of evasion, distance or submerged emotion controlling the actual moment. For instance, the second quatrain goes,
The rock fell from a great and far-off height
and plummeted silently through the roof
into bed, where it replaced your heart.
That’s what I think. It’s why you’re so aloof.
This distance, heightened by the internal monologue, foretells the rest of the collection. Indeed, that insistent, “That’s what I think” is at the core of Whitmarsh’s linguistic landscape. The poems are often pivoting on people so involved in what they think, they fail to make any real connection with others. Another poem, early in the book, is “One Art.” It is a satire of the famous Bishop villanelle, brilliantly using the exact same rhymes in the sequence of Bishop’s original. But in this version, the speaker is talking about wishing to be Bruce Lee when he was young so he could hit his “way out of disaster.” The poem concludes,
why I wanted to be a kung fu master,
as though desire alone could prevent disaster.
This desire is at the heart of the original Bishop poem, a speaker who is aching to convince themselves of something they don’t truly believe. This resonates to the key struck by the rest of Whitmarsh’s collection, which, on the whole, addresses the disasters that come from entertaining our fantasies too much, the emotional traumas of too much indulgent daydreaming. It’s why the tone is such a peculiar blend of humor and loneliness.
The title of another poem is “He Said These Things, Not Even I Could Forgive Him.” The first line of this poem goes
I’m kind of reluctant to mention the superhero powers
I’ve acquired since last we talked.
This is an opening line that leaves one expecting to laugh the rest of the way through. But the poem ends with the speaker saying,
In my dream
I grabbed an electric fence and when I woke I said
how strange to be in pain in a dream and you said
I was lucky it wasn’t worse, those fences are dangerous.
Oddly, it seems, dream and reality are beginning to blend by the conclusion of the poem. The person spoken to is almost accepting the terms of the “superhero” who is speaking. However, we can’t forget the title. The person spoken to resents the speaker. Why? Perhaps for no other reason than that the superhero is talking about what should remain unspoken.
If Whitmarsh’s poems are about the dramas that result when our unspoken fantasy lives break in and distance us from our real lives, these unspoken fantasies are also the source of what drives us to need each other or what makes us interesting or even who we are. One poem says it’s
Better, maybe, to let the guilt metastasize
than to cancel by good intent
any chance to surprise.
A couplet says,
Everything weak in us survives. It’s meant to.
If not, not a day would go by where I’d want you.
This couplet is from a poem titled “Three Curses.” The implication is that this is a curse, that our weakness is what drives us to want others, to desire. It is also what creates our fantasies and the distances between us. Or as Whitmarsh says in another poem, “One begins ever after and ends upon a time.”
It is a wonderful debut collection, inventive in its forms, from villanelles, triolets, and ghazels to prose poems and all handled with a casual fluency. He writes with compressed intensity; only a handful of his poems are longer than half a page. But all glitter like well-cut gems.