Matt Miller

“What need for purists when the demotic is built to last,
To outlast us, and no dialect hears us?"

—John Ashbery, “Purists Will Object”

Perhaps it would have been too obvious, too neat of a summary or gloss, but a part of me wishes Mark Tursi had introduced his book, The Impossible Picnic, with John Ashbery’s epigrammatic closing couplet from his 1984 poem “Purists Will Object.” It would have been instructive, perhaps too pointedly so for the author’s liking. As aggressively demotic as any respectable twenty-first-century heir of Whitman should be, “purists will object” (or at least be resistant) to Tursi’s immense restlessness and plasticity. Bucking the recent trend in poetic “concept books,” which proceed through consistent application of a methodology or form, The Impossible Picnic is not a testament to discipline, but rather to possibility. It presents readers with a constantly shifting ensemble of forms, textures, and speaking positions. Individual poems may arise from known combinations of poetic strategy—loose or formal, coy or sincere, cogent or disjunct—but as soon as Tursi demonstrates fluency with one approach, he moves on, eager to plunder the possibilities of the next suggestive model. The overall effect is one of learned poetic intransigence, intrepid inclusivity, and a cavalier, almost reckless sense of poetic bravura. I challenge any reader to come up with another young poet who so effortlessly synthesizes as many divergent and hitherto insoluble strands of recent poetic history as does Mark Tursi in The Impossible Picnic.

One of the most obvious divides bridged in this collection is the generic distinction between poetry and prose. The mere fact of mutual artistic cohabitation between writing with and without line breaks is of course nothing new. In the United States, it’s a tradition that can be traced back through Gertrude Stein and W.C. Williams (think Spring and All) back to Whitman’s Twin Rivulets, to name only a few prominent antecedents. Generic conflation for its own sake, at least in this respect, is no longer particularly interesting, but its possibilities are far from exhausted. The challenge now is to apply the strategy to more distinctive and expressive purposes. As co-founder and joint editor of the well-known online journal Double Room: A Journal of Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction, Tursi has for years worked behind the scenes to advance discussion investigating boundaries of genre. Now, with his first full-length collection of original writing, he offers his own sophisticated palette of formal propositions, from dense tonal cacophonies in poems like “Shadowlawn” and the masterful “Sarcadia,” to the surreal, proverbially-inflected  sequence that begins with “Overlapping and Oblivious to the Other” and concludes with “Pastoral,” to his at-once disarming and disturbing narrative poems, such as “Reproduction Synthesis” and “On Being Being.” Already at this stage in his development, Tursi is adept not just with “prose poetry” but with several distinct genus thereof, as well as hybrids which combine lineated and unlineated writing. Among other things, The Impossible Picnic presents a kind of “how-to” guide for the contemporary possibilities of the prose poem and its various and sundry relatives.

But formal variety is only one facet of The Impossible Picnic’s power of poetic synthesis. Equally striking is the book’s ability to pull together the most casual, colloquial, and contemporary diction imaginable into poetic vehicles that maintain a sense of aesthetic purpose and value. In this sense, Tursi resembles that most pervasive of twenty-first century poetic influences, John Ashbery, but where Ashbery’s deployment of off-beat colloquialisms often seems a part of some grand literary rescue mission, salvaging the relics of popular speech to preserve in his ever-expanding poetic museum, Tursi uses slang as ready-made and entirely, comfortably alive. This isn’t the slang of a forgotten niche of pop culture Americana but of the current “popular culture”—not seen through the distancing lens of irony or kitsch, but as just another potentiality of expression, another micro-tonality within the plastic palette of contemporary English. His opening poem, “Constellations,” fuses hyper-contemporary popular speech with the bardic voice of poetic declamation and distinction:

Look at me go you might say and mean it. You want to make meaning so bad, you’ve forgotten what it means to mean. You are meaningful. I mean mean. Look at me go you say, but don’t mean it. Meany.

I bet you’re wondering who he’s talking to. The he is me, but that doesn’t matter—I get pretty clingy when I don’t have anything good to say. I’m so enlightened I shit in French. I piss Voltaire. I mean the 18th-century is way happening. I am the way happening. Look at me go! I’m way out there on a limb.

Tursi’s vulgar tone here is perfectly earnest. The transgression is not ironic but real with self-delight (and refreshing in this era of inflated self-consciousness). This is his walking suit of words, his ordinary palette of literary possibility. When he says “I am the way happening,” he is, on the one hand, playing off the slangy phrase “way happening,” but at the same time, he is stating a literal truth: while we reading his work, he is also creating the “way” that our thoughts are “happening”; he is leading us along, and thus the tension between the casualness of the cliché and the almost Biblical altitude of a phrase like “I am the way…” Between the two tones, a great distance is traversed; hence the exclamation “Look at me go!” But the “way” is fraught with potential for misguided or over-abundant meaning—thus he immediately pulls us back, acknowledging, by way of another poetically realized cliché, that he is “way out there on a limb.”

As the above passage suggests, Tursi often proceeds with a sense of great playfulness and digression. But readers shouldn’t get too comfortable—it is only one suit, one poetic “limb” to climb. Tursi is equally comfortable speaking with an austere sense of refined poetic purpose. Here is the complete poem “Explanation,” which is the opening poem of the collection’s long second section entitled “Conversations”:

This reminds us of our own fate.

We drag the river in logic

and the connected droplets break into name.

Point your finger and out of necessity

the words will come.

In five short lines here, Tursi conjures an entire world of thought on language and its relation to the reality—and of poetry and it relation to mortality and the tension between the raw flow of life (“the river”) and reason (“logic”). The world of words and names is portrayed as something wrested from the breaking of wordless continuity: language—names—is the sound we hear emerging from the interstices of lived reality. Thus we “break”—both in the sense of something damaged and in the sense of something being set free (as in “break into song”)—from the world of experience into the world of meaning. Paradoxical as it seems, the whole process is nevertheless depicted as something necessary and natural for us. Language and by extension poetry is depicted as the natural human extension of any kind of pointing or indication, any kind of discrimination we might deign to make from the raw welter of human perception.

As diverse and accomplished as The Impossible Picnic is, it is still, clearly, a first book, and Tursi’s influences are apparent accordingly. The section just mentioned, “Conversations,” collects and acknowledges these influence by framing a typically diverse series of imitations and homages as “conversations” with the poet’s antecedents, living and dead (Tursi describes his purpose for this section in a somewhat superfluous note at the end of the book). This is the most uneven of The Impossible Picnic’s six sections, containing both his strongest work (“Shadowlawn,” “On Being Being,” “Sarcadia”) and his least successful (“Panels,” “Eye of the Storm”). Some poems, like his take on Gertrude Stein entitled (in a cloyingly easy code for Tender Buttons) “red neTs not tuB(s)” read as one-shot experiments in clearly foreign modes. Others, like “Secret of Sadistic Fish,” overlap so much with Tursi’s approach elsewhere that it is difficult to discern the “conversant” with whom the poem engages. The poet’s influence range from the mysterious (I have no idea, for example, who the subject of “A Way to Language” might be) to the obligatory (Ashbery, Stein), to the trendy (yet another Henry Darger poem). The section title, “Conversations,” strikes this reviewer as a tad misleading—although admittedly “Ventriloquist Acts” has a less authoritative ring to it.

More ambitious and impressive is the section from which the book takes its title. “The Impossible Picnic” is a unified series of prose poems in which Tursi seems most fully realized as an artist. These poems succeed best at embodying the “impossible picnic” between life and art, come closest to uniting the poet’s circus animals with his own biographical self.  These poems are full of personal declarations and savvy nods to fellow travelers: “I collect all the hallucinations of Deadheads having flashbacks. This makes the oneiric and unanimous evening full of trails with dark stars and peals of fragile thunder.” But readers need not unravel the poet’s full palette of allusions to be tickled by his wit or moved by his candor, as the poem careens from self-satire to full-blown confession. As “The sadness jerks us around like we deserve it,” there is still time to enjoy and embellish memories, including some unfashionably tender and awkward ones:

My grandmother had all sorts of Italian sayings: “the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves from the heat.” I admit I’m preoccupied with my personal escort to the afterlife. My first real kiss was with a magazine. It was flat but full of lust. She ran off with my fancy sarcophagus and a tourist named La Hora.

Like Whitman, Tursi’s world is enlivened and indexed with lists of imagery, real and imagined, as in this dazzling passage near the conclusion of the sequence:

This is what I’m talking about: days strapped together by confetti, stars that whimper crumpled apostrophes, scraps of dreams held together with silly putty, sex with exotic vegetable, limbs with their own private knowing, music with rosy little cherubs drunk and rippling with laughter in the cheap seats of love.

But there is little time in Tursi’s world to pause with the “rosy little cherubs,” and soon as the evident delight of this sequence transposes into “vast hallucinations” that “hound” the author “like the same aching shadow … left hanging to dry on the sun.”

The Impossible Picnic itself is a book hounded by the impossibility of coherence in a world of abundant with discordant realities: that of family, of the solitary self, of the world of art and of ideas, of the social world with its eruptions of humor and sexual possibilities and temptations. Somehow, Tursi, tries to acknowledge and respond with vitality to them all—sometimes in the very same poem. The “impossible picnic” that the author is haunted by suggests a communion of socially constructed opposites, of the conventional dichotomies—good and evil, male and female, real and imagined, and so on—that define the allowed limits of identity and thought. In one section, “The Unanimous Evening,” the author contemplates unanimity, evoking a “queasy utopia” in which “remoteness inevitably becomes crowded”; his “imagination dresses / in a different dialogic” that might resolve and advance formerly definitive polarities.  This is the book’s most abstract and philosophical section, and the poet ultimately recognizes that the attempt at unity results in another cascade of illusion, “the orthopedic imagination / of our own false identities.” In the end, “We pantomime / our own singularities and turn sad / when we fail to commit.” We might even turn to some absolute, but when we “quote God … the undertaker spanks us with his / shovel full of daisies sprouting up / like the impossible giants of someone / else’s long forgotten odyssey.” Mortality, as always, reigns in fancy, however lofty or skeptical.

The book’s final section is its most moving, as the poet abandons abstraction to contemplate the “Proximity” of real human beings, such as the “neighbors” of the section’s first poem, “arguing through the airy screens of midsummer.” Even though he and they will “never be friends” and “never exchange the vapory life between [them] for the concrete and tangible anarchy of inside,” he can still celebrate the speech between them that “bounds over the white picket fence, pirouettes, sashays, and rethinks its place in our hearts.” The last two poems of this section (and of the book) both end in storytelling that hints at larger allegorical significance. Framed in a disarming story from childhood, the first offers a traditional acknowledgment of the poet’s vulnerability and bewilderment before the prospect of death:

A friend from grade school had an actual dinner bell his mother rang to call him in when we were somewhere in the neighborhood playing. “What a nerd,” I thought back then. Now … I still think so. But, I’ll concede … I sometimes hear an orchestra of bells tolling, and I don’t know how to respond.

The second concludes with a story that addresses the book’s underlying theme of resolution of opposites, its obsession with the between-spaces of linguistic and imaginative possibility:

Our neighbor had a baby, but instead of celebrations and a big balloon in the front yard that read “It’s A Girl!” or “It’s A Boy!” there was a quiet kind of myopia. It turns out the baby was a hermaphrodite. They felt compelled to decide. They thought about it for days and decided to go Boy. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Now their love is all strung-out, flapping like soggy towels on a clothesline that someone forgot to bring in before the rain. Lucky for us there are visible things like mountains.

The poet’s neighbors’ “hermaphrodite” baby is forced into a single gender, a single side of the polarity, but this effort at understanding, like all our fragmented efforts at understanding that are based on discriminations of alterity, is doomed to failure, and results in a “strung-out” love, weathered and sad. The only kind of unity possible, the poet finally suggests, is that of immediate perception, as suggested by the visual immediacy and permanence of a mountain glimpsed on the horizon.

The Impossible Picnic will not be for everyone. It is a young person’s book, crammed with awkward self-confrontations, sweaty yearnings, lowbrow humor, and wild vacillations

between euphoria and despondency.  There is much gamesmanship and play, including but not limited to linguistic play, and a certain amount of uncomfortable fidgeting as the author tries on different poetic suits. These are poems that often seem casual in their apparent spontaneity and verve. At the same time, these are poems expressing a high degree of intellectual rigor and emotional generosity. The poet seldom holds back, either with head or heart. He writes with a sense of seamless compatibility between high poetic ambition and an “anything goes” attitude toward form, diction, and the forms of poetic logic that he assumes. Tursi writes with the confidence of one who believes in himself enough to allow loose ends lie, and though the final section does offer a tentative sense of resolution and transcendence, the effect is fleeting—the chaos has not really abated, and the The Impossible Picnic, achieved in poetry, remains a loose fancy in the world.

Matt Miller is an assistant professor of English at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Iowa and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His book,Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass, will be published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press.  

The Impossible Picnic
Mark Tursi
BlazeVOX Books, 2007
$14.00 paperback, ISBN: 1934289280
87 pages