It may be difficult for the reader to see through the appearances of sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll, but the background din of emotional toil that emanates from the poems’ more rewarding lines supplies the reader with an exceptional incentive: a remastered or remixed social fatalism that possesses hinted-at determination for self-preservation. Regarding the aftermath of love-lost at the heart of the volume, Magers writes, “Welling up in my hands are emotions, / and I awakened in her wake, / and I almost saw heaven then.” Conclusively determining whether the “heaven” is ironic or not broadens the poem’s reading by denying a clear reckoning of severity. And it’s something for which Magers should be thanked, for art shouldn’t be pandering, it should take risks, and only through close inspection should a work of art’s rewards be afforded those willing. The oscillating tonalities and dictions fashioned in Partyknife make for a beautifully complex work of emotion and relevance and take to task contemporary poetry’s uncertain direction. With so much weak irony and self-reference establishing poetry’s new foundations, Magers’s work demonstrates that there can be more if done so with a social intelligence and a deep understanding of poetry’s aesthetics.
There is an air to Dan Magers’s first collection that many will relate to but few will have experienced. The subject matter shouldn’t be read superficially, which would exclude the deep intelligence throughout the lyrics. New apogees of anxiety, excess, loss, and nihilism are pursued in Partyknife, conveyed artfully by the author for the sake of Art’s—and by proxy, society’s—vitality. What threads the superficial abstracts together is a very particular desire. By the laws of nature, society and the individual are in a constant struggle or desire against disorder; the universe dwindles to the endgame of entropy, and nothing can be done to stop it. In the twentieth-century, Beckett, Camus, Sartre, Artaud, et al explored what that endgame might look like when experienced from within its vacuum, a kind of cenophobia. Their art not only tackled it as subject matter but as parameters for aesthetics, regardless the attempts made to wiggle away from Aristotle’s edicts without falling into the nothingness of Dadaism. It can be done and done successfully as they proved, yet their successes also proved nihilism difficult to refashion in new generations, and society has yet to see the nihilism—in subject and aesthetics—exemplified by mid-twentieth century artists. The nihilism of Partyknife may be translated as a deepening angst relative to the new century for all intents, and in rupturing the gentle balance between order and disorder. The art of Partyknife exemplifies an aesthetically complete and humanly flawed persona lowered into the limbo where, “Everything I hated has become my life now. / By which I mean how happy I am.”
The persona in these poems owns its (his) existential illiteracy, which is to say Magers’s control over the tone and poetic line is consistent and dramatic, and a great imbalance persists not in the poetry itself, but as a byproduct within the persona’s temporary inability to reconcile his changing self with the pace of the life he’s living. Juxtaposing high lyricism with relative confessionalism, the poems feel at once free flowing but exceedingly crafted and tonally never fall by way of melodrama, unless it is a self-pitying of the persona’s choosing: “I don’t want to be remembered / except as what the worst person thought of me then.” Thus, the nature of tone in contemporary poetry, what Carl Phillips has deemed a “prevailing age of cool irony where we deny we even have woundable feelings”, as one may interpret in Magers’s poetry actually ascribes a hoodwinked seriousness about the milieu of drinking, mixtapes, and hooking-up. It should be of little surprise that certain subject matter rarely yields great works of art, and Magers’s tackling of what may be considered off-limits content—material too pedestrian or too “low-brow”, stuff that’s already been rendered by the likes of the New York School—belies such assumptions because he is able to create a stark motivation for the content’s exploration. These are not only objective correlatives; this is also reality.
Bidart—by way of Catallus (“I hate and I love”)—is the contemporary master of versifying contradiction in one single breath: “Wanting to cease to feel—; / …my romance with Orgasm” and continues overtly: “the NO which is YES, the YES which is NO.” Whether under the influence of Bidart and other contemporaries, or the shifting attention patterns of the writers, many poets now depend too much on the grammatical construct of abrupt contradiction, which comes across as lethargic associative logic or the non sequitor. Much of the overreliance or overuse is the product of poems’ lack of apparent crafting; the usage runs the risk of feeling slapdash or too insular. But like Bidart’s, the non sequitor in Magers’s poems is validated by the strength of his poetic line, which rummages through the diction to manifest highly rhythmic meters:
Checking every LES building’s door
to smuggle in for some rooftop drinking.
Rob, will you be my dad?
I’ve lived in New Orleans, I’ve KNOWN vampires.
If I leapt back, do you think I could fly?
New Year’s Eve fireworks…an uphill run along the campus,
the dorm way out above, the frozen lake below.
Hip-checking girls along 3rd Avenue,
and I laughed at your rape jokes until I got the hiccups;
asked by paramedics what my name is
in a bagel place, tiny as shit, busy as fuck.
The integrity of this poem’s cohesion is not only in the indirect rhythm but in how the poem’s context is established by the italicized lines, which act to emulate the shaky foundation of reality and perception. The image of fireworks, exploding in the sky as the observer runs, is at the poem’s heart; the moment in the poem at which the poem pivots and descends into memory and contingent thinking. Something about the experience of drunkenly walking a late and bustling New York City has evoked the past. Then, the writing erupts back into the sensual world, which is jarring and sudden and uncomfortably physical, much like the writing itself. Equilibrium is refused the narrator as well as the reader. Caesuras are manipulated to better offset a smooth reading. At these abrupt pauses, the poem sidesteps, only to sidestep again in subsequent clauses, both pushing and pulling the reader away from and into its world. In a nutshell, this tactic should always be the purpose of the non sequitor, and it’s employed masterfully over and over and in varying degrees in Partyknife. Earlier in the book, the persona is with a girl he’s “fucking” and she’s introducing him to her friends:
I have no idea what these kids are talking about.
Lacan and baby food.
Disequilibrium is manifested in the content of the characters’ speech. Magers creates the purpose for his aesthetic, and his aesthetic creates his purpose for his voice. Like the Cubists, the aesthetic principles must adhere to the changing perceptions of a fracturing world in some attempt to overlay order about the chaos. It all culminates in Partyknife in a moment of wayward Hegelian dialectic, the persona reaching for a defining meaning inherent in such schizophrenic unbalancing:
And when does I’m doing it for experience
become the experience itself?
I take all of it, and I really can’t have any of it.
From nothing to something to nothing is a soul.
And everything else is matter.
It takes intelligence and bravery to infuse such audacious lyrics with a bedridden existential anxiety and to have it mean something as a work of art, ultimately. The antipodal natures of lyricism and super-contemporary idioms (crass language, internet-speak, for example) may not mix well for every reader, but the authenticity of voice and emotional resonance hold the poems in Partyknife together inventively. They are in that Goldilocks Zone—not too poetic, not too coarse; not too coy, not too fearless. Rosanna Warren wrote of Melville, “perhaps it is in meeting one’s native sorrow that one ultimately wrests one’s own being into shape.” It’s the shaping into being that can be translated into art. To this notion should be added Hayden’s ars poetica: “All art is pain / suffered and outlived.” For however much the content may appear to detract from the overall arc of Magers’s ars poetica, the voice he has created acts as a perfect counterbalance to the anxious self-appraisals and literal screamings which cycle through the persona’s experiences on a minute-to-minute basis. The unnamed Everyman of Partyknife lives a life of few, if any, heroics, and he is only human, at this particular moment in this particular age. Magers’s work deftly embodies the time in which it is written and at the same time refracts the collective cynicism of a well-worn society aloof and indifferent to its own inability to question the complexities of ontology, and maybe even indifferent collectively to the great utility of art. Not only is Magers capable of questioning such complexities without moralizing or denouncing, he is capable of answering them with the “being-into-shape” of Partyknife, which is the endurance of the art and artist in the face of the transitory, of fragile history—personal or otherwise.
Lucid dreams and near-death experiences
become so serious. A night
I wanted changed will have forgotten
how to, leaving only that I wanted something else.