Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)


Greg Santos’ Rabbit Punch! and Steven Schroeder’s A Water Planet

by Lia Dun

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Greg Santos, Rabbit Punch!, DC Books, 2014. 85 pgs. 

Steven Schroeder (author), Song Zijiang, Sou Vai Keng and Vai Si (translators), A Water Planet, Flying Island Books, 2014. 111 pgs.

  

Rabbit Punch!, Greg Santos' second collection of poetry, combines a quick wit with poignant insight. Playful and fast-paced, with numerous references to pop culture, Santos's poems nevertheless manage to depict a certain vulnerability that make his works more than simply clever wordplay.

In the first section of the book, Santos' poems take on more conventional points of reference—mythology, fairy tales, the streets of Paris. In "Hansel and Gretel," Santos recasts the title characters not as victims of the witch's trap but as young people who go willingly to the witch's house "ready to die for love." In Santos' version of the story, the two children ignore their parents' exhortations against entering the valley and instead are "coaxed by promises of peppermint, floss, doom." Hansel and Gretel become human beings, vulnerable to temptation, desire, wanderlust, which renders the danger they are in no less terrifying but instead more relatable.

In "The Cave," Santos humanises the subjects of Plato's famous allegory:

She slowly opens her eyes
observing the ash swirl under the moonlight
 
She reaches behind her head, unclips her mask,
and breathes very slowly.
 
He is asleep, his frame rising and falling as he breathes.
At least we're breathing, she thinks.

Instead of allowing the characters to be simple objects of a philosophical argument, Santos describes the way the woman slowly opens her eyes and watches the man sleep beside her. This gives a sense of the intimacy that exists between the two characters, making their struggle seem more visceral and urgent.

In the second section of the book, Santos makes references to pop culture, using them as a jumping off point to analyse themes similar to that of the first section. The poem "Zombies" starts off seeming like a simple satire of the trope of zombie movies but goes on to explore issues of appropriation:

Zombies like listening to the Cranberries
Particularly, their hit song, "Zombie."
Zombies like the song because they can relate to it.
They nod their heads, mouths agape.
"Ughhhhhhhhhh," they grunt affirmatively.
Zombies, however, do not like Rob Zombie.
He is not an authentic zombie.
He is a live human who has appropriated the zombie name.
There is no greater Zombie taboo.
Look out, Rob Zombie! Behind you!
Just kidding.
Or am I?

The majority of the poem seems to satirise the idea of cultural appropriation. However, with the ending line "Or am I?", Santos appears to challenge the notion that the entire poem is satire, suggesting that there is some credibility to people who are upset by issues of appropriation. In doing so, the poem complicates ideas of who is "right" in these debates, all the while maintaining Santos' characteristic wit.

The poems in the third section of the collection tackle many of the themes contained in the first and second sections, but many also focus on the concept of poetry itself. Santos dedicates many of these poems to other poets, including John Ashbery and his late mentor Paul Violi. The poem "Love Song" analyses the role poets play in the larger world:

I am a bird
and I love
poets.
 
They look
so tiny
from up here.

Poets are tiny when seen from the sky, but rather than becoming insignificant, they are still loved, perceived as something beautiful. Poetry then still matters, even if its effects seem small in scale. "Love Song," like the other poems in Rabbit Punch!, demonstrate a minimalism and a playfulness that still manages to be insightful, and again illustrates why this book is such an engaging read.

***

Like Santos' Rabbit Punch, Steve Schroeder's a water planet explores what it means to find purpose in a setting that is constantly in flux. Many of the poems take place in big cities in China, where Schroder himself lived for a number of years and analyse these seemingly indifferent cities to find moments of clarity. Incorporating concepts from Buddhism, Daoism and Chinese history, to name a few, Schroeder's poems sometimes contain a graceful lyricism while others fall into familiar tropes that leave the reader feeling unsatisfied.

Schroeder is at his best in poems like "a moment," which describes in pointed detail heavy traffic on a city street:

Street corner alchemists are at war
with buses. Diesel makes things move;
but they mix it with simples to distill
metals so pure it will stop things
at the scene they have made
of wheels and carts and fire, home
passerby can smell when air is heavy
with elsewhere. Bicycle barricades
direct traffic under the nose of cops
who think they are in control.
 
Hover over it and it is an eddy
in the steady stream of this
diesel fired city. On the ground, it is
a moment that will not stand for no.

The second stanza manages to capture the contrast between the urgency on the ground and where it fits into the larger picture of life in the city. The image of the traffic on the street as an "eddy" suggests its insignificance, while the last line, "a moment that will not stand for no," indicates that the traffic, no matter how small in the grander scheme of things, matters in that moment to the people there. It is in these small moments of insight within seeming contradiction that Schroeder is most effective.

Other poems, like "red guards," are based on interesting premises but are not able to provide any new insights into the concepts it presents. "red guards" describes a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant and the waitstaff that are dressed as Red Guards. This is an intriguing choice of setting, but the poem does not explore any of its implications in depth, giving it a rather dismissive feel:

Two smiling Red Guards
meet us at the door,
and a third escorts
us to a table
by the window,
opposite a line
of icons: Stalin,
Engels, Marx, Lenin,
Mao. Along the way,
we pass a glass
display case filled
with little red books
and walls covered with
revolutionary slogans.
 
When still another Red Guard
arrives to take our order, I notice
that there is a hint of smile
on Mao Zedong's face
reflected in the window
three decades after
a cultural revolution
that is still quite out
of hand, time enough
for three turns:
tragedy, farce, and,
in this moment, kitsch.

The ending lines "tragedy, farce, and,/in this moment, kitsch" hint at the larger historical context of the Cultural Revolution and people's inability to confront history, but the brief, casual way in which Schroeder describes the restaurant does not allow for any exploration of these themes. Instead, the poem does little more than describe the restaurant and poke fun at it in a relatively shallow way.

The themes Schroeder takes up in a water planet are important ones—life in a Chinese city, the struggle to find meaning, our ability to take responsibility for history—and occasionally, the poems provide a sharp insight or turn of phrase. Still, many of the themes are handled in a way that seems superficial, and the reader is left feeling that these poems could have been pushed further into something more fresh.

 
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