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A Review of: The Joyous Age by Christopher Nealon

CENTRAL QUESTION: If language does nothing useful, or nothing special, what’s a radical poet to do??

A Review of: The Joyous Age by Christopher Nealon

Stephanie Burt
17 Snaps

The playgrounds and basements of Brooklyn and Berkeley teem with neo-avant-something poets who smash prose sense to bits while preserving syntax, and who claim that the resulting jumbles reveal a radical critique of life, the universe, or old tennis shoes. Nealon’s bracing and bitter debut both enters and mocks the tradition of kaleidoscopic, difficult poetry as grand social critique, and makes most new work in that mode sound sloppy or bland by contrast.

Nealon calls his procedure “recombinant banal,” comparing it to a “slicer-dicer”; the same bleak, hyperactive poem describes its own mood as “better and less manic than how I usually feel.” He speaks both as a Gen-X everyman and as a sort of perpetually incensed foreigner trapped in our America: he can wear both hats (or both hates) at once. “Who are people at a garage sale: I like them/ I enjoy liking them,” one poem begins; “I enjoy the voice of the prophet; it has a neighborhood feel to it.” Nealon’s lines and sentences imply a cynicism the poet cannot help, and cannot help but fight: “Have I told you how much I love you?/ I should be honest: there’s not a hundred percent success rate./ I seem to remember holding in a terrible explosion, as though if I burped I’d wake the house.”

In such self-cancelling, self-corroding utterances, consumerism, callousness, and mere habit have burnt the language and the polity nearly to ash, so that social and ethical hopes makes sense only as grotesques: “What’s the sentence or the skin disease that would break through every sealed-off face and ooze the fresh pus of a new unbeaten world? I’ve stopped trying to imagine it, since every time my dreaming stretches that far I miss some obligation, or fail another taste test.”

Life under Bush 43, Nealon implies, can let almost any responsible user of language—liberal, centrist, even backward-looking—feel as frustrated and impotent as true radicals have felt for a while;“children link their arms just once a generation to call their elders fools and then subside into a collective isolation so untraceable in origin, so emulsified, you have to wonder how we made it to the barricades to start with.”

As his prose poems break into snatches of verse, you may hear Nealon’s yearning for some other poet, some other verbal technique, to release him from his own. When Nealon relinquishes his anger, he sounds stunned and sad: “I am a placement service to sentences// I am just the way they left it when they left the room”; “You are fated to this grief// You weren’t once but you are now// Soon you may not be but right now you are.” The diary like verse sequence “Concept and Category” (the last third or so of the book) liberates Nealon from his apparent obligation to attack conclusions, assumptions, and closure; it’s quieter, more varied, almost a relief.

Anything unsatisfying about this alienating, infuriating, reverberating, exhilarating debut? Sure: Nealon’s ratio of ideas to examples, of statements to emotional effects the statements make possible, seems distressingly high; some of his anticonsumerist bits are cheap shots. Not everyone can get behind this much fury, or this much distance from what people recognized as poetry before about 1914. For those objectors, I promise to review a happier, more lyrical book next time. As for the rest of you disheartened, disillusioned post–November 2 Gen-whatevers, this is your future speaking: get in line.

Stephanie Burt
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