The Poetry Project

In a January Would by Lonely Christopher

Review by Levi Bentley

Lonely Christopher's poems are emotional, lush, and bruising mixes of complicity, complexity, adventure, abjection, insult, and erudition. Desire is located, an accident of encounter; intensely human, intensely animal, a function of circumstance, an entanglement. One doesn’t get to choose connection, it is something that happens, and then it ends.

The titular poem, “In a January Would,” describes biking by an ex-lover’s home until the impulse becomes dislocated “so many times I forgot who lived there.” “The action continues bereft of cause.” The connection is dead, but its afterlife of loss is alive. It is the emotional engine of the repetition of the bike ride and compulsion to address these poems to various caustic endearments, the haunting force that moves the whole year of text. In these poems connection is rare but casual, contingent. Not to be looked at too closely, lest it evaporate, and then maybe it was better that way. The titular poem ends with a bit of a shrug, “But if in a fairer spell reclaim you I could, then I / in a January would.”

There’s a cagey quality in the discrepancy between intensity of attention and purported nonchalance. The insistence that this poem is more about a bike tire making its mark in the mud, about extending the edges of seasons. Beneath are familiar and familial patterns of abandonment. The “rough tranche of midsummer” recalls a trench, associatively calling up a war. The way that meaning shifts out from under the speaker and attaches nearby does not seem wholly volitional, and the portrayal is quietly heartbreaking in the honesty of its blithe bereftness. Stories and moments are cut short, turn into the next moment. Meaning is not always quite available, but it’s best not to get too attached. Instead, the flashing of intrepid actions, of bright colors, saturated feelings, biting turns of phrase. A texture of eroticized adventure skirting tragedy while acknowledging particularly fucked qualities of reality with grim humor. It is reflective of a year half spent in homelessness. Poverty does not preclude thought here, and erudition is no escape hatch. “I don’t know if you belong in one of those porn videos or selling / my own breath back to me in a caisson of worldly resentment.”

There are flashing hints at narrative where image fades into image in collage recalling the imagistic surfaces of John Ashberry, but with more depth of texture, more alienation, more political critique, more climbing out of windows, interpersonal tiffs, and gay sex. Like polaroids of a particularly desperate party that definitely happened, although who can remember. “It’s funny, living in the gutter and dreaming of joy.”

Self-proclaimedly dirty, criminal, dissolute, the diction is by turns colloquial and direct, symbolic and baroque, affective and imagistic. There are often what would seem to be perfectly sufficient common words underneath obscure choices, but the obscure offers something picant and painterly. An affective overlay, often a sense of compression, percussiveness. The way it sends the reader on a chase to catch the ball seems as necessary as the meaning of the word itself. It is a bit of a power play, a dare, a game amidst the real dangers and extremities of poverty, social exclusion and hardship that are the material realities seeping in. These poems are scintillating, they shift rapidly. Inviting, obscuring, repudiating, leading the reader on and leaving them, only to come back and again with a “Dear mongrel.” It’s a barrage that keeps calling the reader back in with all the humor, intimacy and tension of a lover’s quarrel, a knowing dance of barbs and unexpected emotional transparency. “I don’t want to speak unless my subject is destructive and obtuse” and yet “You are the basal part of me I foreswore for some membership / but if I can strain ten thousand heavens, if only in theory, / I have to hold you.”

There are a few jagged burrs when a truly unfamiliar word slips in. It feels like a joke. For example “how am I going to deal with the boys / meandering through my truth as they do / like a clowder of bored grimalkins.” Context cues are impossible. I’m trying to explain in the kitchen that it is both irritant and joy. My boyfriend says “like landmines.” Yes, they look like ornamentation, but are explosive. It’s the surprise of this libidinal reading pleasure being disrupted by an indigestible thing that throws you out of the water, the adrenaline of running about to figure out what’s happened. The ensuing pleasure of trying to fit meaning back together. There is a true delight in both the obscurity and availability of a precise word, a painterly quality to the extravagant affect they create.

The joy of being difficult for fun, of sending the reader to decode is a stable element of Lonely Christopher’s larger practice, but serves the subject of this book particularly. In a January Would was, according to the publisher’s copy, “written from one January to the next, using poetry as durational art to track a heartbreak and the ensuing attempt at recovery over the course of a rough year...” The words that blow up the text come to the English through French, rare enough to be truly archaic while a common word lies nearby. The line “I kissed you in the narthex for sandy seconds,” could just as well use the word porch. The less familiar choice stretches out to the reader as ex-lover a proffered sense of both connection and provocation recalling the site of the relational rupture, throwing shrapnel of the break-up in Père Lachaise Cemetery on Christmas Day. The ubiquity of archaic words of French origin that are nonetheless not French become trenchant. These words trapped between languages become an object lesson of how, in the aftermath of a relationship a shared language gets severed, ceases to function. We are left with the bruising sharp artifacts of essentially incommensurate and incommunicable disconnection. Still, “the trick isn’t figuring out, it's falling in love.”

#262 — Fall 2020