Last fall I submitted to the Rattle Chapbook Prize—one great feature of which is that the entrance fee pays for a subscription, and this includes the chapbooks Rattle chooses to publish.
As a result…these chapbooks will be some of my guinea pigs for this poetry review project.
The first chapbook I’m reading and discussing is A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider. Schneider’s bio says he’s moved around and traveled a lot, worked many jobs, attended several colleges, never gotten a degree, and published several hundred poems and stories including four full-length collections. It’s really cool to see people without an extensive academic background succeeding as writers.
This chapbook revolves around the speaker’s relationship with his Mexican wife; some of the poems are more personal and some more political. Most deal with his love for her one way or another. Most also deal with racism and the challenges facing undocumented immigrants in the US. So it’s an extremely timely chapbook in this era of walls and Trump and does a good job of reminding more privileged and isolated readers like me of what has been going on out there. There are only twelve poems, so it can be read in an evening. Rattle prides itself on promoting accessible, moving poetry, and argues on its About page that twentieth century poetry has taken a wrong turn—presumably toward the obscure and academic. I’m torn and so will emphasize first that it’s wonderful that there’s a vast diversity of every kind of art that appeals to a vast diversity of people. I’ve written about liking poetry I can understand, and then modified that statement to say I like poetry that is only ~20% difficult; now, I feel that my favorite poetry—unless it hits my emotional buttons, in which case all bets are off—moves at my speed or a just a smidge faster. This could mean plainly stating things that I’ve only just realized or was on the verge of realizing. It can also mean stating things, clear to me or not, obscurely—but not so obscurely that I can’t figure them out with a few minutes’ hard thinking.
In this intellectual dimension, I have to say (on the whole!) Schneider doesn’t move fast enough for me. This is not to say that there aren’t complexities, indirectness, and mysteries in his poems; I just long for more of that. What felt like excessive simplicity made the reading experience less viscerally rewarding, but I’m pretty sure Schneider and many others would have choice words for me for wanting games and puzzles and ideas when dealing with something this serious and real.
In fact, my favorite poem in the volume, the title poem, “A Bag of Hands,” makes this point excellently.
Schneider opens by talking about a plastic bag full of hands cut off for thievery, rotting. Throughout the poem, which is arranged in couplets, he plays with hands as a metonymic stand-in for all that human beings do to each other. But he begins by describing his hands physically as “old man hands” he has always disliked. Then he refers to the Sherwood Anderson story “Hands,” which is about a man whose hands caress people against his (and their) will, getting him into trouble, and Schneider’s speaker says that that story got him into writing as “a good thing” to do with his “guilty hands.” But he fights others’ suggestions to write a novel or a short story about the bag of hands because
that’s the problem, this black
plastic bag full of severed hands.
I’ve stolen things. Hasn’t everybody?
He then recounts how he scared off a robber who broke into his bedroom and later drew a picture of the robber that helped to convict him. He talks about all the other hands he sees as a cab driver, the hands that severed the thieves’ hands, and finally says,
is like a fog on the brain. The poets
scribble, the novelists invent.
Hand shadows, hand puppets,
Hands of time, hands of God. A clock
Without hands. Why
couldn’t that black plastic bag
Have had a six pack of beer in it instead?
This turn surprised me—I was reveling in the different ways he used the word hands, in the ways he switched the place of guilt from thieves to punishers, in the effort to figure out how the ugliness of his hands fit in, how his desire to write fit in, in the excitement of seeing what he’d do next—and it chastised exactly the delight I was experiencing. It’s a strong indictment of art in general, and definitely of the art that’s all cleverness and beauty and complex structures of ideas to which the original subject matter is sometimes irrelevant. Of course, in this whole poem, and even or especially in this portion indicting art, he is doing some of those things. This irony rears its head elsewhere as well—I’m thinking of “Cartas de Amor,” where he writes and publishes a poem about upsetting his wife by writing poems to her as if she were dead—which she discovered and took to mean he was going to leave her. He finishes “Cartas de Amor” by saying
Best not to imagine your love dead
or to put literature ahead of life.
Best not to write certain things down
or if you do
or hide them
for some cold dark day.
He struggles against the irony, but he does not overcome it—he’s writing and publishing these poems. We’re left to guess whether it is a guilty indulgence or a moral choice whose reasoning he does not lay out, but I’m inclined to think it’s more the latter—his poems strive to shake up the complacently racist and put a human face on situations we often hear about in more abstract terms; in short, it’s activist poetry. He still feels the unease of subjecting serious emotion and real life to artifice, and he copes with it by writing (comparatively) plain, conversational poetry.
So I salute the mission of this chapbook and I think that to the extent I wasn’t moved and angered it was largely because of my demand for a degree of nuance and detachment that is anathema to what he’s trying to do.
Another thing I value about his writing is his conversational approach. He’s not afraid of slang, he doesn’t strive too hard to find a perfectly original way to say everything (writers’ religious efforts to eliminate cliche often come off as strained and alienating, and the results sometimes —overall—feel less original than writing that follows the contours of the mind that gave birth to it), and, as a result, I sense a real personality behind the writing. Part and parcel with this reality is the fact that the real isn’t always appealing; most noticeably, I wish he didn’t casually call a security person a bitch—it’s a sexist insult, and it doesn’t take too much imagination (I hope) to realize that she has her own story and may well hate her job. But it’s true to his focus, his state of mind, and his anger (even though I suspect the anger at the security person is misplaced).
In terms of specific poems, there’s a lot to like. “Flat Iron” wasn’t my favorite—it felt too pat and appropriative for the intimacy of its revelations, but I loved “The Zoo” (the ending, about humanity’s violent domination of other species, is a chilling and well chosen contrast to his and “Josie’s” love). In “Family Tree” I liked the detail that “the American fondness for animals and trees/ is a strange sentimental concept” to his wife; it develops the social and ecological complexities that “The Zoo” introduces. “Sugar and Water and Heat” is lovely, including what I take for a sex metaphor at the end, though again, there’s something that makes me uneasy about what almost seems the speaker’s fascination with “Josie’s” victimhood. “Consequences” isn’t subtle but it’s an effective call-out, and it pairs well with the subtler but similar “Flank Steak My Ass,” also about infuriating passengers in the speaker’s taxi. “A Bag of Hands” follows, and after it comes the short, moving, and evocative “Loco for Love,” which finishes with a great image: “and the sun is barking/ in the turquoise sky.” “Driving Josie to McDonald’s to Work the Breakfast Shift, 3:45 a.m.” captures very amusingly and cleverly an intimate moment of exchanged yawns. “41st Birthday” I can’t quite fit in my head, but I can imagine myself there, trying to change a tire on my birthday. “Cartas de Amor” is evocative, and “Chasing the Green Card” a raw and effective expression of grief and rage at the immigration system.
What I would most like to see (though perhaps it’s more evident in his other work, or perhaps he chooses to protect his wife’s privacy) is Josie herself—who she really is. I feel like we hear a lot about what’s happened to her—abusive exes, endless work, and grueling struggles for the right to be in the U.S., and only tantalizing glimpses of how she thinks, what she cares about, what the two talk about.
That said, I’m very glad I read this collection; the collection makes real a part of the human experience that is too often reduced to political rhetoric.