Prose. Poems. a Novel. Jamie Iredell. Orange Alert Press. $14.00, 112 pp.
Jamie Iredell’s first full book of poems, Prose. Poems. a novel., dares its reader to consider the book as a simple drug-and-alcohol-fueled rampage while moving towards manhood:
I always imagined that Jon wanted to feel the inside of the back of my skull with his knuckles. I swallowed another beer in two swallows. It’s only now that I can look back and say what kind of an idiot I’ve become.
Although drinking and taking drugs form an inextricable thread through the poems, the narrative thrust of the poems as a group—the “novel” part of the title—take the poems beyond this basic theme. These poems are not punk retreads of the remnants of the Beat movement; rather, Iredell carves out a unique space in his writings that gives rise to a singular voice of defiance.
The title of the collection serves as a bold declaration of war on the boundaries of genre. Iredell is not flouting the rules of genre, though. Instead, Iredell weaves his three titular genres together into a form that is all its own, containing elements of each. The poems are either prose poems or flash fictions, existing in this shared and contested ground between two genres. This shared ground is utilized for two ends: to create a singular instance of the poem as well as to move the poems as a group along a narrative path. In this shared and melded space, each genre is suggested and feels almost identifiable, but attempts to determine the specific nature of the book at any given point remain difficult. This elusiveness does not create distance between the reader and the text. Rather, it causes concerns of form to recede and become unimportant. What is most important is the poem and the exact moment being described on the page. What is most important is the story and how all the poems fit, in some way, together to form a whole. They are both the most important, logic be damned.
The poems are an exploration of location. Iredell’s alter-ego narrator wanders through all strata of his surrounding society in the same way that Benjamin catalogued Paris or Ece Ayhan treated Istanbul. The narrator here, though, is not walking through his location; he is always driving. The car becomes a main character inhabiting nearly every poem:
We’d driven to the top of the ridge, where the casinos were stars in the desert night. The smell of Greece permeated the truck cab’s air, something like old, unwashed blankets, and my friend, a Ph.D., who was from Greece.
Iredell’s main character does not inhabit condensed, walkable cities. He inhabits expansive American cities and the rural wildernesses in between. The car both embodies and creates the narrator’s relationship to his location. One cannot help but think of Creeley, “drive, he sd, for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going”, and at the same time think of Kerouac’s On the Road. To be on the road, to drive, is a vital American experience.
The narrator moves across the nation, from west to east, against the flow of manifest destiny. The narrator’s quest against the grain of American history is also a move from the rural and outlaw to the civilized. We meet the narrator as a drunk and an outlaw:
The cops said, “Step out of the car.”
and as he and the story progress and move eastward, he also undergoes a process of growing and maturation:
I spin this out—this paragraph—from this desk, while Sally’s tiny feet, in their miniature sneakers, with the little swooshes, hike away this morning on her trek to the station. . . . Before Sally returns this evening, when I have finished this paragraph and said to myself, good job, I will bumble storeward for chicken and veggies and begin cooking them for her, my pretty doctor. And I’ll hope, like I do everyday, that she will in fact come home.
This is a bildungsroman that charts for itself a specifically American territory, that looks more to the American lifestyle than to the roots of the term in the German Enlightenment. The most obvious divergence from the bildungsroman tradition is the impetus for the change or journey: both of the narrator’s moves are prompted by admission to university studies, but it’s clear that, for him, studies are secondary to simply living and exploring. Writing does not come to the fore until the conclusion of the maturation process—in other words, not until the end of the collection.
The narrator, instead of moving purposefully towards maturation, is, rather, drifting through America. The move from Nevada to Atlanta is not announced with fanfare or even any indication of a reason:
When I moved from Nevada: Moses and Fredo stacked boxes of books in the U-haul, cussing at the sage-filled lot adjacent the building…When I said goodbye they turned partway and shrugged.
This drifting might make one think of ennui. But although there is a relationship between the spirit of Iredell’s poems and the spirit of Rimbaud’s poems, the precise designation of ennui is not quite correct. A more appropriate term would be one that is entirely American and encompasses what it means to be American at the turn of the millennium. A more appropriate term would be disengaged:
Once, down above the junk, this feeling like I was part of something . . . There have been one or two times since when I felt almost the same way. That bar—the Summit Saloon, way out in the dark on Fourth Street—closed. Afterwards they put up condos. That’s the way it always is.
The surroundings are treated with an air of detachment and lack of connection or distinct caring. Friends, alcohol, and locations are all described and interacted with but fade in and out without leaving a mark on the narrator. He is not upset that the Summit Saloon closes. That’s just the way it is. He is not upset that he has only felt a part of something a few times in his life. That’s just the way it is. The poems are not an attempt to create meaning, which would just be a lie. They are recognitions of the reality of the narrator’s life and situation. And the reality of being American is movement and change. We are transitory, we routinely move from city to city and state to state; and our locations are transitory, as the Summit Saloon becomes condos, which later might become a school or a strip mall. To be American is to inherit nothing and create everything as we move along.
Iredell’s work skirts many boundaries and traditions: poetry, prose, and the European traditions of the bildungsroman and ennui. But it avoids each of these, if ever so slightly, and marches out on its own. The poems are not coming from a tradition because no tradition is the American tradition. The poems might recall traditions, but Iredell is not using these trappings to tell his story. Instead, he is telling his own singular story, creating his own specific tradition and genre as his story unfolds through this series of poems. A singular, American story. A singular, American poem.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. He currently splits his time between Istanbul and Las Vegas, where he is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal The Offending Adam. Recently, he co-edited with Mark Irwin the forthcoming anthology 13 Younger Contemporary American Poets (Proem Press). He also writes the literary blog A Compulsive Reader.
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