Dante Di Stefano Reviews Really Happy
January 27th, 2015
Love Too Much, but Don’t Let Go
Jim Reese’s third collection of poetry, Really Happy, pursues joy while coasting through the ruins of the contemporary consumer culture, in which an advertisement for Jockey underwear might reduce a wheat field to Cream of Wheat. These are poems in the American grain, equally at home swooping through the wide open spaces of the heartland, sitting at a counter in a local diner, or exploring the confines of the penitentiary yard. Reese begins the collection with a poem set in a “mega-pharmacy,” among the aisles of “formula, baby wipes, Aquaphor Healing Ointment,/ disinfectant wipes, lead paint test kits, hand sanitizers, lots of sugar free juice,/ binkies…pregnancy tests,/ colored condoms, acid reducers, Band-Aids, Ativan,” and so on. For Reese, the bric-a-brac of daily living provides the pivot into epiphany. Among these aisles, in these poems, Reese employs a plain spoken lyric narrative style in order to address fundamental questions about sexuality, masculinity, class inequity, gender inequality, social justice, the prison system, fatherhood, and, of course, happiness.
Throughout the collection, Reese intersperses poems about family, body image, teaching, and everyday life in the Dakotas and Nebraska, with poems drawn from his experiences as an educator at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp. The finest prison poem in this collection is “New Folsom Prison Blues,” which reads:
There are few words for
razor on flesh—for scream.
Black. Blue. Cut. Wet.
I see some of you bandaged at the wrist,
forearm, belly, throat.
You are cutting to get out.
If we treat men like animals they’ll eventually
start to chew their way out—
We know this,
By punctuating the collection with poems that expose the harsh realities of life within the prison industrial complex, Reese questions the forms of cultural confinement that lead to mass incarceration; implicitly the poet links the brutal truths of prison life with conservative notions of gender roles and the gluttonous materialism of American popular culture (as emblematized by the television show, Man Vs. Food).
Reese expands this critique of American culture through the central poem of the collection, “South Dakota Bumper Stickers—Redux.” This found poem consists entirely of slogans from bumper stickers. The poem builds meaning by accretion. The slogans themselves are by turns disturbing and humorous: “ I like my women like my deer: HORNY,” “If it has tires or tits, it’s trouble,” “I can muck 30 stalls before breakfast!/ What can you do?,” If the Fetus You Save is Gay/ Will You Still Fight for Its Rights?,” “If you don’t like whiskey, huntin’, or strippers, don’t come here,” “Eat More Kale,” “Cowboys for Christ,” “If you’re gonna ride my bumper/ you’d better put a saddle on it!” Like Gustave Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, this poem lampoons cant and political doublespeak, and skewers the flotsam of a national discourse stuck just above the tailpipes barreling down the blacktop of the interstates and riding the ruts of dirt roads all over this country. Reese’s stance here is critical and ironic, but, characteristically, the poem also rejoices in, and embraces, the diversity of idiosyncratic foolishness represented by these bumper stickers.
Ultimately, Really Happy is a book of poetry in which the acts of self-definition, epitomized equally by the bumper sticker and by Facebook, matter less than a sustained engagement with the broader culture and with daily life. Reese’s poetry agrees with Nietzsche that “what labels me, negates me.” Reese is less interested with telling you who he is than with exploring the truths of what he’s seen. Throughout this collection, the honest and direct commitment to recreating and challenging lived experience does what all good poetry should: it brings us to our senses. In the poem, “Knipplemeyer and Sons, We Lay the Best in Town,” Reese sums it up: “And you know, we say the wrong things in families/ of our own now. We scream too much,/ love too much,/ but don’t let go.” Despite the struggles bucking in our personal lives and the great injustices galloping through our national life, America remains a place where happiness might be saddled and ridden. There is no corral here, only a vast mesa. Hold tight the reins and ride.