A Question of (Soma)ticsby Alex Estes
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics
(Wave Books, 2012)
“Visit the home of a deceased poet you admire ... Once there, scrape dirt from ground into a pot. Drive into the woods. Meditate beneath a tree with dirt. Upon return, abstain from showering for three days. On day four, disrobe. Rub poet-dirt into skin from head to toe. Put on clothes. Go about day. Throughout day, stick nose inside neck of shirt, breathe deeply. Take notes. Make poem.”
If you take the aforementioned steps, you will have completed the first of the 27 (Soma)tics outlined in CAConrad’s latest book of poems, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics, published this year by Wave Books.
CAConrad is at least one answer to the question, What do you mean by “make it new”? His collection Book of Frank, published in 2009 by Chax Press and then in an expanded form by Wave Books in 2010, is a kind of poetic biography of a man named Frank, a character that owes much to the Henry of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. In The Book of Frank, Conrad does with poetry exactly what Frank does in one of the poems:
pebbles into the
map of the
Conrad continues this type of activity in his new collection, except this time it is done in such a way that it gives the reader an opportunity to throw pebbles into themselves.
The (Soma)tics, in published form, date back to 2008, when Conrad released one (Soma)tic divided into seven parts. In this new collection that (Soma)tic appears as (Soma)tic Seven. In it, Conrad instructs the reader to eat a specific colored food for an entire day while remaining under the influence of the same color in any way the reader likes. For example, on day one, Conrad eats only red foods while wearing a red wig. The reader is then meant to cycle through the visible light spectrum. Conrad includes white but has left out black, an exclusion that brings troublesome questions to a reader’s mind. Questions, however, that will have to wait. It is important not to cast too dark a critical shadow over this luminescent collection just yet, in the hopes that the collection will be read despite the problematic nature of a few of its components, for the core component—the poems that Conrad has written after completing each of his Soma(tics)—deserves our close attention. Conrad’s almost tumbling meter and stepped margins coupled with his penchant for word repetition and quick slant rhymes practically pull the reader over some very difficult terrain. For example,
the rich can
hire a dominatrix
my mother could
only afford to
apart no matter
The collection is full of moments like these. Conrad plays with his margins and enjambments in a way that is very genuine—these playthings work quite well in spite of their suspect nature. And it would not be unfair if one felt suspicious of this gadding about with form. Conrad himself says that he “writes forpoetry.” Anyone with the gall to say this should be held to the highest of standards. This is not to say that poetry is a serious endeavor, but, at the very least, it should be an endeavor of sincerity. For the most part Conrad seems sincere about what he is doing.
Some of the pieces falter a bit at times, as some of the best collections of younger poets do when so many pieces are pulled together. A few feel a touch lazy. Oddly enough, the poem “I’m TOO Lazy for this World” is not one of them. Conrad opens the poem with “I went to the very / Real bank with / a gun for the / Fiction of / Money.” The touch of ambiguity in that for adds such a nice depth to the poem. Did he go for “the Fiction of Money” in the same way a soldier goes to war for his or her country? Or did he go for “the Fiction of Money” the way one goes to the store for eggs, simply to pick them up?
The word most fitting for a collection such as this is “ambitious.” It is a lot to ask the reader to undertake many of these (Soma)tics. For instance, the title (Soma)tic, “A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon,” asks the reader to locate a refrigerator box, carry it inside, line it with blankets and pillows, cut a hole in its side, place a baby bottle full of soy milk in the hole, and live in the box while watching film after film from Piero Pasolini’s oeuvre, while taking notes to write a poem. This is possible. Not easy, but possible. As is (Soma)tic Seven. But the difference between these two is where the problem lies.
In the Soma(tic) “A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon” there are no word-created templates to interact with, whereas with the seven colors for seven days a week there are a few. These templates pose a problem because they invite questions: Why seven days? Is it because that’s how many days there are in a week? Why is a week significant? Are we not attempting to escape the humdrum by undertaking these Soma(tics)? Why not eight days? Then we could include the color black. Why not include the color black, because it requires an extra day, or because Conrad’s avoiding the color for emotionally charged reasons? Why include white, because that’s the “color” that a prism refracts into the visible light spectrum? The answers to these questions are utterly irrelevant. It’s obviously not the point of the collection to provide answers; if anything, the collection itself is a type of question-generating machine. What does matter is that the questions arise and, once they have, one can see their validity. The issue is trust. We should hope CAConrad isn’t just showing off. Certainly Conrad doesn’t expect us to pay upwards of $3,000 for an un-doctor-referred MRI as he does in “Radiant Elvis MRI”(it probably didn’t even occur to him when he included it). And honestly, are we meant to be “MUGGED into poetry,” simply because Conrad himself was mugged one night? Again, the answers seem irrelevant.
We know Conrad loves poetry. We can feel his desire to uplift it to a level of importance beyond any art form. He tell us that once we have our notes we “sculpt [our] poem” or “build a poem!” or “wrench [our] poem into existence” or even “Pull it out like pulling [ourselves] out of a long and energizing dream.” He believes in the poetic method, in the challenge of poem-making, in the obstacles that words present. So why then does he say a thing like this, “Soma is an Indo-Persian word that means ‘the divine.’ Somatic is Greek. Its meaning translates as ‘the tissue’ or ‘nervous system.’”
Unfortunately, both of these statements belie the truth. Soma is actually the word for a pressed juice used in divine rituals by Indo-Persian peoples. Somatic means, more generally, the body. What’s a bit strange is that Conrad knows this is the case. In the interview at the back of the collection he states “Soma is from the Indo-Persian, and means ‘to press and be newly born.’” Then later, “that Soma (the divine) lives inside Somatic (the body).” He uses these words for his convenience, and to some this might not seem like a problem, but it is a form of manipulation. We should, in spite of these missteps, trust in CAConrad. We should make our banana word machines and stand naked in our buckets of water behind our front doors because he is exactly the type of person this world needs more of—a beautiful, playful, brilliant young poet. But frankly, he might want to be a bit more careful with us, his readers.