The Poet Always Rings Twice
Polito, Robert. Doubles. University of Chicago Press.
56 pages. $20.00 hardcover / paper $8.95.
- As the biographer of cult crime novelist Jim Thompson (Savage Art, Random House, 1995), Robert Polito knows his way around the darker side of the literary imagination. He's not the first poet to investigate that crawlspace. Poe is credited for having invented detective fiction itself, and in more recent times we can point to Paul Auster's New York Trilogy novels and David Lehman's study of whodunits, The Perfect Murder, as proof of the genre's attraction for poets. But like Auster, Polito cares less about the mechanics of the police procedural or Holmesian logic; he evokes instead the genre's conceptual and psychological aspects, and realizes that a little imagery goes a long way toward conjuring the demons that inhabit the unreal, nocturnal dimension of lust, fear and greed so familiar to us through American film noir and the novels of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler.
- For example, in the poem "Evidence" a twelve-part pastiche that occupies nearly half the volumePolito need only cite a snippet from Cain's Double Indemnity to set the stage for an oblique narrative of betrayal, an illicit love affair that steams, flickers, and ultimately goes nowhere. Outwardly it's a mundane tale, devoid of murder, physical violence, or even any really nasty thoughts, but through the use of dialog, (particularly the adulteress's giddy, guilt-ridden chatter), stage setting (as in the post-punk malaise of the "Clubland" section), and a vaguely transmitted sense of garden variety doom, Polito creates an expectation that something cataclysmic can happen any second, as when the narrator accompanies his lover and her unwitting husband for a weekend at Cape Cod:
On my way to the bathroom
I stop outside their bedroom door
In the living room a guitar feeds back,
The hot distorted notes soar and scud
Before they're ripped back into the rhythm
On the porch bushes scratch at the screen,
Heaving like the sea after a high wind
Through the window beams from a wandering car
Climb the wall
But nothing all that melodramatic happens, and though there's no mention here of the narrator's state of mind, the external imagery says it all, revealing jealousy's psychic abrasions: the "hot" heart's soaring and scudding and scratching, the mind's effort to keep emotions in "rhythm," to keep the jealous lover from figuratively climbing the walls. It's through close scrutiny of given physical details that the "story behind the story" permits reconstruction, just as the quirky expressions and objects in Weegee's tabloid photographs
to which the poet alludes in the final section give away to the perceptive observer far more information than their subjects intended.
- The best poems in Doubles "Evidence," "Animal Mimicry" are the more satisfying for their distance, their let-you-in-on-a-secret-if-you're-willing-to-look-for-it savvy. They transmit a kind of stealth wisdom about how deceptively things work in an urban, aimless world, andeven less reassuringly suggest that even in
nature nothing is what it seems ("Philia browse amongst themselves ,/Taking
each other for real leaves."). Polito's poems about childhood which could have been the usual vehicles for gauzy epiphanies or recollections of sexual abuse exude a similar atmosphere of ambivalence, circling the tension between the desire for family approval and the need to reject it. To some extent, Polito's work shares an acre or two of the penumbral mindscape occupied by the poems of Denis Johnson, only without so much self-conscious surrealism. Though Doubles may not aspire to the wiseguy, booze-for-breakfast despair of a Raymond Chandler thriller, it's "a vitality of shadows," a welcome, intriguing foil to poetry's coy sentimentality disguised as candor, and a reminder that the devil's in the details, or at least in how devilishly we elect to interpret them.
Copyright © 1996
Electronic Poetry Review