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Postcards

Though it’s possible that T. S. Eliot was correct when he famously said that “it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,” there are nonetheless times when difficulty is not what we want. As Nicholson Baker writes in his dizzyingly poetry-besotten novel The Anthologist,

The rhyming of rhymes is a powerful form of self-medication. . . . So poetry and alcohol are what the honest doctor should prescribe, and maybe letter writing, as well. And chin-ups. Time-honored substances and behaviors, plus rhyme, all those things are fine. In fact they’re necessary.

And in these wan days of January, where comfort is thin on the ground and all one’s troubles appear to have secretly slipped unbreakable appointments into one’s calendar for the coming days . . . well, who would begrudge a reader of poetry who, shunting Eliot and his ilk aside, turns to lighter fare?

If that describes your reading needs right now, I’ve got a book for you: Amanda Laughtland’s Postcards to Box 464. I think Laughtland would be unlikely to take offense at my characterization;a poet who calls her book “found poetry” seems unlikely to be expecting to vie with Eliot for difficulty, and the instantly engaging straightforwardness of Postcards is one of its chief virtues. Laughtland explains in an author’s note that she built the book from a box of postcards sent to family neighbors over the course of fifty years:

With each postcard I selected from the box, I transcribed its text into my notebook line by line, rearranging words and creating line breaks, adding and subtracting and so on. I played with words and phrases, hoping to strike a balance between remaining true to both the original postcard and the new context created as I reworked the source text and supplied additional words and ideas from my personal storehouse of memories and experiences.

The resulting book reads like a plainspoken, pithy account of midcentury America travel and tourism. There are vacation updates:

We’re having cocktails out
at the end of this dock
with Florence and Jack.

Their trailer’s parked across
the lot between a palm tree
and a convertible. So hot

but we sleep by the ocean.
Mickey fishes from every pier.
I swim. Bathing suit does’t

quite fit, but who cares?

Do I even need to tell you that that postcard is from the late 1950s? Can’t you see it all, colors faded just a bit because of the poor-quality film?

And, mixed in here and there, accounts of family visits whose emotional weight comes through despite the concision of the form:

Mother is in a bad way again.
I’d have picked up and left
last month, only it didn’t sound bad
over the telephone. Doctors say

she’ll surely need another operation.
Never realized it might get so bad
or I’d have been here sooner.
Haven’t time for a letter.

Will try and tell you more later.

The poems are, like postcards, brief and to the point, while also–like postcards–always hinting at things left unsaid. “Will try and tell you more later,” the ever-deferred wish, not just of the postcard, but of all family life, perpetually beset by other obligations and the rush of time.

Whatever Laughtland’s alterations to her found texts, the result, impressively, is a set of miniatures that simultaneously feel true to postcards and to poetry, believable as either. Difficulty may still be the watchword of our era, but it’s far from the last word; at times, simplicity is what we need, and a goal well worth striving for.

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