My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve begun to think Carrie Oeding has been out there somewhere in the Midwestern wastelands acting as something of a doppelganger as I’ve eaten the potluck food and pumped kegs at leaving-this-one-stoplight-town going-away parties, wondering when I’d get around to making it my turn. This is one long way of saying that as I read these poems I found myself often thinking: swell, I’m not the only one — in a way void of any kind of relief, a way entirely full of loneliness. This paradox often surfaces to my mind as an overarching gesture of the book — a crowded, noisy, tiki-light bordered backyard rumination on the unique brand of suburban dystopia that only the Midwestern fields of cows and corn can offer. The speaker of this book is one that seems often to come out of the blurred landscape that lies at the center of this paradox, perpetually vacillating somewhere between insider/outsider with a comedic and often sardonic distrust and annoyance as much with herself as the ever-present neighbors:
“Don’t wait for me to point out how people work.
Your friends will leave you for a stranger’s birthday,
and you’ll never get over it. I can’t wait
to tell you how your kitten will turn out.
Oh, I’m ruining everything.”
“Let’s get you a soda,
with two straws and one person
to love, who’d break your cake, cut your heart
and its songs of what a heart is.
Then maybe you can come over
and surprise me with something better,
something that I would really
never get over, something that would ruin us both.”
–from “Sandy, Will You Quit Saying Such Things?”
This epigraph from Frank O’Hara, set before the second section of the book would seem to capture this aspect of the speaker perfectly: “That’s not a cross look, it’s a sign of life, but I’m glad you care how I look at you.” The speaker might be providing all the cross looks but life remains everywhere throughout this book — the bizarre and complicated characters and their relationships that continually flood into all of the cracks in the fences are what really charge this book with a thick atmosphere of straining for ways to live and live with each other, for understanding in a way as hard to grasp as to articulate:
“What’s the safest way to swerve, crash, and avoid that deer?
How long can you hold out? How long can you hold?
Children of botoxed mothers, what facial expressions will you acquire?”
–from “Prelude to How the World Works”
Numbness is prevalent in many forms as the speaker’s own oscillations allow for varying distances, the farm-town malaise never quite as clean and static as the aerial photographs of patchwork fields might lead one to believe. What’s it mean to be ‘part of’ any neighborhood, anyway? The role of the neighbor itself feels like one that is comfortable, even benign, but again with the same kind of insightful pondering the speaker herself often seems wary of trundles on–as unstoppable as anything can be–nothing in this book is ever as simple or alone or connected or complicated as it might seem:
“I see there is no difference in happy endings.
I used to call from my porch
until I realized I had to.
I see no one took the stray cat I positioned on the playground.
My barbecue grill is simply past scrubbing.
I know too much. I am never disappointed
and will glean these chimes until I really know
what not to want.
You residents of tiny disappointment
and fragile potlucks,
what can we get each other not to say?”
–from “A Way to Live in the Neighborhood”
This last excerpt is one moment of several that felt like points of crisis or saturation, expressed as dramatically as one might reasonably allow oneself to feel them considering the quotidian backdrop and inspirations for such turning points–turning points on an infinitely generating track–sure you’re turning but where are we all going anyway? It ends on a lovely rhetorical bit that nicely encapsulates the broader, familiar angst of being over it all, but so what? “What now?” These thematic grounds may be thoroughly traveled in contemporary literature but having no answers one wonders if they can ever be explored enough; this is certainly a book that makes the case for poetry that wants to wallow in the absurdity of the cliche ‘human condition’.
All of these characters shimmer safely behind their botox-smile walls in one moment before falling cripple to a milieu of gossip and adultery and disappointment and tee-ball trophy victories the next. If some of these scenes were played out on stage we’d never be able to stop laughing and crying — of course the stage is just a mirror or wobbly-handed camcorder account of almost anyone’s Fourth of July extravaganza.
“It is easy to try hard. It’s easy to make sense of things. I never want
to give in to the stories.”
–from “Sandy’s List of Solutions”
Ah, what a beautiful slice of self-deception our speaker offers here at the close of the book. Even as would-be documenter, willing deformer of every last dream and conversation she never fails, poem after poem, to fail to let herself off the hook. The space the speaker occupies throughout the book cannot be overlooked; while often an observation outpost on all the things mentioned here and more, the poems essentially revolve around the speaker’s core experience, interpretation and reinterpretations of self using the only available context of stilted surroundings. Often the most compelling poems for me were the ones where the vision of the book scaled back down to the speaker’s experience of the lonely isolation of herself alone–at home pleading to the porchlight–these moments reverberate with a kind of deafening silence, a ringing in the ears after an all-night concert that all these other poems stand as. This finally to me became the final vibration of the book, between the complications of self in relation to others and oneself as an other even to oneself when that is all that one is left with. And always the soft undercurrent of assurance that tomorrow the light will still have burnt all night for all the reasons in the world (there are(n’t) any) and … we never liked Louise anyway, did we?
Our List of Solutions is the first full-length book of poems from Indiana University South Bend’s 42 Miles Press.