Since I blogged about Russell Evatt’s We Are Clay last week, Epiphany Editions have re-launched their website with order buttons, previews for each book and a design much more reflective of the aesthetic of the print editions, which are things of absolute beauty. In Search of Mariachis is a masterpiece of the book designer’s art, so if you are as afflicted with book lust as I am, it might be worth ordering for that reason alone.
I was also pleased to get it for the contents, however. David Shumate is a prose poet of some renown with two full-length collections out from Pittsburgh University Press, which — I should point out for the uninitiated — is one of the best poetry presses in the country. And reading this collection was a pleasure only partly attributable to the fine homebrew with which I lubricated my reading. It had fairly typical proportions of poems I liked a lot, poems that did nothing for me, and poems I thought were O.K. but not earth-shattering: roughly a third in each category. A more exacting reviewer might condemn the book for not being amazing on every page, but I personally feel a lot of poetry reviewers need to chill the fuck out. I enjoy an experimental spirit, which means taking risks and sometimes (often?) not quite making the mark.
One of the things Shumate does in this collection that doesn’t always work for me is play with notions of exoticism, as signaled by the title. In poems such as “Waking Up As a Buddhist,” “Curry” and “Darwin’s Beard,” speculations that are presumably intended to sound humorously ill-informed just strike me as inexcusably ignorant, especially in an age of smart phones, Google and lots of actual Buddhists and Hindus in our midst. I have a hard time seeing these sorts of people as exotic any more, I guess. “Waking Up As a Buddhist,” for example, begins:
Sometimes you may wake up and find you’ve become a Buddhist. You realize its [sic] illogical because you’ve never taken lessons in Buddhism or had a Buddhist sprinkle water on your head or do whatever a Buddhist does to become a Buddhist.
As day goes on the bliss wears off, and that night you even have un-Buddhist dreams.
But in your final dream a deer comes and licks your face and you’re a Buddhist again. Your heart so full of compassion you feel like calling up your enemies and thanking them for being alive.
So at the end “you” recognize compassion as being more central to the religion than bliss, which had proved so transitory. The poem in fact wouldn’t be a bad critique of the mind-set of novice Buddhists, had it not been framed as an exercise in magical realism.
“Talking to the Woman in the Yellow Kimono” finds the narrator “at a loss for words,” which isn’t entirely inappropriate given the extent to which Japanese do in fact idealize wordless communication. The narrator considers raising stereotypical Japanese subjects with his interlocutor: flower arranging, haiku poetry.
But that might appear to be empty flattery. So when she bows, I bow back. And I sip the tea she’s poured for me. Thus we build our little pagoda of silence. Plank by plank. A structure so fragile, a single syllable would bring it crashing down.
Again, a good conclusion for an O.K. poem. But there are a number of poems that kept my interest from start to finish, so perhaps I should mention a few of them instead. “The Immigrant’s First Day of School” is a pitch-perfect mix of the predictable and the unexpected: “You learn the name of the desert you walked across. The history of the night.” And the ending was a little gut-wrenching:
Your teacher points to the place where you are living now. It is green and seems situated in the center of things. You take home a few sheets of paper. Your mother meets you at the bus. She’s wearing her colorful shawl but looks like she has shrunk.
Another poem take the narrator-as-avatar-of-the-exotic-other idea to its logical extreme. In “The Village of Miraculous Happenings,”
We’d like our lives to return to normal. We’d like the rains to fall on their own rather than each time the librarian claps. We’d like our thoughts to be private again. We’d like our deaths to take us by surprise instead of always being foretold. We gather in the chapel to pray for this daily.
The notion of people with lives so magical that they are beset by busloads of tourists being reduced to praying in vain for normalcy is a delightful conceit. The collection is liberally sprinkled with thought-experiments like this. A couple of others that struck me as especially successful were “The Meek,” which supposes that the meek really are going to inherit the earth, but of course are too meek to claim it, and “After They Plundered the Language,” which imagines the aftermath of a marauding barbarian horde which “made off with a thousand precious words.”
There used to be a gentle word we spoke when we wanted to be intimate with a lover. It conveyed both good faith and desire. Now we must paint our faces red. Do a little dance. And set a hat by her door.
As these quotes demonstrate, Shumate has a strong preference for short sentences or sentence fragments. I personally find the effect a bit monotonous, and wish he would have varied the sentence structure a bit more. Still and all, this substantial, attractive and entertaining chapbook assumes a place of honor in my growing collection of prose-poetry.