“Living in houses lets me know
what it is like to live
in houses. The very best houses
(yours) have art on the walls
that I can look at and know
what it is like to look at real
art. Something real made
by someone real ... “
So begins “Other Poets’ Houses”, a poem, one of the few, in Elizabeth Bachinsky’s 2013 The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, not addressed to a relative or poet-friend. Frank O’Hara staked his claim on the personal-messaging persona, but though O’Hara is wildly overrated (and poorly imitated), he at least varied his output with unique conceits and creative idiosyncrasies that outran their insular affections. The lines quoted above have the affection of banality meeting dullness against a background of grey. Ah, but the tone!, one might interject. And it’s true, the voice, as the poem wanders from room to room, works inward in a faux-naive mix of subtly inflated wonder and sadness. So if it’s an improvement over the (sincere or ironic, or sincere and ironic) “know/what it is like” opening, it’s a case of pick your poison and hope for a Hail Mary pass completion later in the book (if it’s not too rude to ask of it in the next poem). That irritating tone, though, prevails. Actually, one of two. Cute/sassy, or cylinder-misfiring serious.
To the former, which make up a majority of the poems (these are, after all, private letters to friends): “Occasional Poem for bill bissett, August 21, 2011” is a verbose, even-toned loving rumination on ... well, on bill’s personhood and work, “THE GREATEST/POETRY because I loved how the words were all over/the place and spelled wrong”. She was fourteen – (there is little change in persona to vary the recording monotony of the “I” throughout the book) – at the time, but as the meandering anecdotes pile up like potato peels nudging towards the garburator, the reader notes her continued admiration for “MAGICAL” bill who “gave me a Halls/cough candy, which was great because fire is stressful/and Halls are so soothing”. I realize the tone is in loving mimicry of the holy simpleton which is bissett, but how about those words “great” and “so stressful” for precision.
And that’s what’s most frustrating about Bachinsky’s poetry. The direction is all over the map. Precision and worthy material, one concludes after reading Hottest Summer, are so yesterday, but she’s also been praised for gritty realistic narrative in her earliest (and best, though still prosaically deadening) Home of Sudden Service. There is no hybrid poem that reconciles this. Or if there is to be a way around it, through it, the skill required would have to be on an obverse vertigo-inducing higher level.
Six split-up poems, or texts, or answering machine tape messages, or phone blurts, are interspersed throughout the volume. The acknowledgements enlighten us that “David” is poet-friend Dave McGimpsey. I won’t repeat much of the recording, but I’ve overheard wittier conversation while queuing up at a 3 a.m. 7/11. And if wit wasn’t the point of those six pages, what was? Well, like George Bowering’s various poem-memoirs, it’s a present to that friend, and to a lesser extent, to a narrow circle of literary knockabouts. Others can bugger off if they haven’t closed the book at the first “4:50 pm: David – Davey in the hizzy. How you, darlin?”
But it’s not all cut-ups and back rubs. At some point, when collecting this material, Bachinsky may have tallied up the suitors and realized the resulting MS needed a slight tug in the opposite direction, gravitas by way of a canonical name-check. A pre-email ghost. “The Mountain” (after A.M. Klein) belongs to that smaller subset of cylinder-misfires. In invoking Klein, the lyrical stakes are raised, and one hand after another – King-high, two twos, ten-high – spreads out in a losing procession: “cover and canopy of youth” (cover and canopy?), “grows dark”, “suddenly spill”, “made bright”, “still/rests in the leaves”.
Books of this sort must be a blast to write and compile. Friendships consolidate and literary paths are cleared. But the reader outside the hand-holding inward-facing circle shrugs and moves on. Not that that matters to the community, of course.