The Poetry Project

Thanksgiving: A Poem by Ted Rees (Golias Books, 2020)

Review by Cam Scott

How might one write lyrically of everyday life, both recollected and projected, when its terms are almost totally captioned by capital? Thanksgiving, a book-length poem by Ted Rees, faces this subsumed world with raging gratitude, finding prefigurative vitality amid commercial desolation, and freedom in circumscription. With determined negativity, Rees writes in opposition to the world-as-is, as a defensive reflex:

xxxxxHis knuck tats read
xxxxx‘FUCK WORK,’ but he works
xxxxxand imagine that:

xxxxxa wood-fired pizza outlet
xxxxxhappy hour now,
xxxxxdelivers nightly.

In torqued succession, the mod cons of consumer demand contrast the scene of work, as signifying fingers contradict their circumstances of employment. Similarly, this poem accepts some serious constraints on individual performance, both historical and formal. In the distinctly American pastoral of Thanksgiving, natural signs and their occasions are mediated by the market, such that meaning appears an appetitive directive from above and below at once; first as craving, then as nostalgia. Call it “seductive parking,” or a “sticky cul-de-sac”: as Rees movingly demonstrates, even the cheaply interchangeable scenery of strip malls and exurban sprawl is libidinally suffused by use.

Page over page, Rees tarries with the ingestible grotesquery of the capitalist present. The poem itself is titled after a sandwich, named for a national holiday commemorating the ongoing colonial occupation of North America. “To name a sandwich/The Thanksgiving is a shame,” Rees’ proclaims, and the shame assigned to this repast contaminates the poem by association; for what then would it mean to name a poem after this disgraceful sequence?

xxxxxCranberry sauce stains,

xxxxxcranberry sauce stains
xxxxxand these linens are fragile.
xxxxxEnd the metaphor.

This staple of the autumn table leaves its mark, imparting pangs of consumer regret to the laundered conscience of America, whose flaxen fragility Rees duly notes. “I also know guilt—” he continues, and it’s clear we are embarked upon a non-platitudinous poem of serious moral compunction. “Extermination/the day’s word, every day’s word,” Rees avers, and “still they ask to stop//for froyo yummy,” a detour demonstrating the repressively selective lightness of occupation. As Rees writes, “the search for meaning persists/amidst legacies//and Cinnabon shops”; in a dupe’s paradise that cannot be entirely evacuated of sentiment, nor exonerated of the history it crests atop.

One might describe Thanksgiving as a poem urged on by its own conditions, which are then represented as form. In a visually striking arrangement, the poem gathers momentum over so many tercets of seventeen syllables each, resembling haiku in their compact regularity. This foregrounding of artifice produces a contradictory intensity, building an essaying continuity from a poetic means prized for compression. Clearly, Thanksgiving isn’t a collection of haiku in the customary sense of so many discretely seasonal vignettes. Rather, its multi-clausal argument spans stanzas, while a strict syllabic subdivides the current.

Rees’ haiku-length stanzas function as units of measure, rather than scenically sufficient settings in themselves, only heightening a poetic tension between form and experience. Quantitatively identical but qualitatively disparate, these tercets oversee the exchangeability of signs implicated therein, as simple metrical values. This preponderance of form contradicts the imagistic qualities for which haiku is prized; and suitably, the poem’s natural scenery encompasses brand names and slogans, mass-produced artifacts and marketing portmanteaus, situating the poem in the undifferentiated season of capitalism.

The poignant militancy of this poem surely consists across such an acknowledged tension. Subjective possibility begins amid vast processes of accumulation, occupation, and monetization, and the poet-observer finds themselves in the interstices of only seemingly contiguous manufacture:

xxxxxMy complex begins
xxxxxin the fissure preventing
xxxxxthe appliances

xxxxxfrom touching, recess
xxxxxwhat forgotten drippings there,
xxxxxsuch cathected grease …

Rees writes in desirous proximity to the scenes and surfaces of service, to an unsanitary abyss, and so many related figures of ensnared attention underwrite the poem’s progress. In sumptuous detail, Thanksgiving follows a needful subject through a labyrinthine consumer landscape; but for all the roving subjectivities enrolled in the poem’s point-of-view, containing shopping malls of multitudes, Rees insists on the recollected lyric-I as a vehicle of political experience:

xxxxxI am forgetting
xxxxxmy purpose here: to spit on
xxxxxPlymouth Rock, okay?

This regurgitative task literally reverses the path of digestion, refusing to swallow patriotic propaganda. Otherwise, this righteous interruption, in which the poet breaks momentum to express contempt for the conditions subtending the preceding flow, evinces nothing like a cheap dismissal of poetry in the name of an ulterior politics. Rather, Rees treats the poem as a medium of consciousness; appropriate to the task of disclosing reality, not only as a series of impressions, but as so many intrinsically social relationships.

This reassertion of purpose functions as a kind of refrain, recurring throughout the poem as one might pinch themselves, and the poet’s purposes are many: to spit on Ulysses S. Grant, “to scan/for listening methods,” “to find Gary Mathias” of the Yuba County Five, and more. In each case, this transposable self-affirmation sutures the poem to reality, however hostile or isolating, and furnishes the speaker personal traction. “I grew up queer and lonely/just walking around//such leafy enclaves,” Rees confides before enumerating youthful exploits. This catalogue, of theft and arson, idleness and sex, gathers around a breathtaking assertion of inconsistency: “I do not regret/interludes re: my subject.”

These separate recesses of life are indexed by a base plaint, “I was broke,” as though experience itself could be an object of exchange. With this motive in mind, Rees’ lack of regret exemplifies a louche refusal of the terms by which life is evaluated, and the surplus poeticity of a tossed-in end rhyme further emphasizes this prodigal glee.

xxxxx … I was broke

xxxxxso stole eggs and bread.
xxxxxI was broke and lazed in bed,
xxxxxspying my dreamlife

xxxxxin labor vortex.
xxxxxI was broke and lived on cock,
xxxxxtoo much? Laundromat

xxxxxwas too expensive,
xxxxxI was broke! …

As concerns the poet’s own make-work formation, Rees professes an ambivalent fidelity to punk and its strained intimacies. This DIY ethos is clear from the infrastructural fixation of the book’s projected insurrections, negating empty trade unto a glamorous utility, and repeating the poem’s modular conceit in a thematic register:

xxxxxHere’s the pitch: an office park
xxxxxthat’s overtaken
xxxxxby dull vacancies

xxxxxbecomes the new headquarters
xxxxxfor a radical
xxxxxanti-state cult org.

As a metrical allotment preceding any content, Rees’ tercets function as a formal analogue of this prefabricated regularity. Rees glosses strip malls and office buildings with revolutionary optimism, regarding their consistency as formally hospitable, however otherwise deployed. These depots are nonetheless sites of satiation and spirituality, pleasure and boredom, of social necessity: “‘Worshipping/at a mall might sound strange,’” Rees quotes, but this drive-through evangelism must sustain somebody. As “the lifelong glimpse/into strange windows at dusk” elicits empathetic pangs of non-belonging, any descent into suburban desolation invariably finds its social purpose.

Perhaps this is one calling of the poem—to order and inhabit an otherwise external sequence of signifiers, sentimentally at that, becoming formally commensurate with a subject. This is a true Romantic mission, which may be referred to Coleridge’s famous decree:

xxxxxNo plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
xxxxxNo waste so vacant, but may well employ
xxxxxEach faculty of sense …

Thus Rees relates to found surroundings, oscillating wistfulness and a protective irony that impedes passive reception. And yet, as suits conditions of capitalist subsumption, the poem’s every scenery is subject to development, vernacularly rendered:

xxxxxThis location has since closed
xxxxxthat’s the sound I want

xxxxxempty lot in spring
xxxxxit’s what is called meadowing

Incredulous of the poem’s own working vocabulary, Rees evades and critiques lyric transparency at once, addressing nature at a grammatical remove, as an object of management. This is no simplistic pastoral placed atop stolen land, however; Rees troubles this interloper’s optic, writing at the limit of what it is possible for latter-day pilgrims to say given the real constraints of history. Accordingly, the poem scrutinizes “a diffusion of/terra nullius patchwork/ ideologues,” inculpating the mobility of academic arrivistes, politically complacent poets, and Rousseauian obscurantists, before alluding to the conditions outside the text that must be absolutely opposed. Addressing the disappearances of Indigenous women by name, Rees purposes his verse at extra-poetic redress for injustice:

xxxxx… Start a large fire
xxxxxburning underneath

xxxxxthe fucked condition
xxxxxin which we must commit to

xxxxxsuch searches …

Where this unfinished negativity bears on the present, the poem culminates in civil allegory, with a street scene; someone playing music at a burned house, life transpiring at cross purposes to rubble, “and signs reading/everything must go.” Enjambment has the effect of endorsement here, making fire sale signage into a statement of principle, and construing an index of so-called under-consumption as a call for a destructive jubilee. Here too, the poem’s characteristic surfeit of form serves a categorical function before an incorrigible world, anticipating new and unforeseeable content.

Notably, this oppositional bearing never lapses into nihilism; quite the opposite, as Rees risks gratitude throughout, for a reality of someone else’s making, and a fraught world wanting change. Omnivorously allusive and effected with uncanny rigor, Thanksgiving feels like a gift; a timely fulfillment of the Romantic vision of poetry as a form of experience, and an instrument of dissonance that only sounds of life.

#261 — Summer 2020