Everyone at This Party Has Two Names (Poems)
by Brad Aaron Modlin
88 pp., $14.00
As its title suggests, Brad Aaron Modlin’s debut collection (winner of the Cowles Poetry Book Prize) wrestles with the nature of identity, how it is mediated by the narratives we tell and those that we have thrust upon us, often in shockingly ad hoc and arbitrary ways. Several of the poems embody this phenomenon in the form of awkwardly-themed cocktail parties. In “Everyone at This Party Is An Amateur Children’s Book Author,” the speaker mistakes the instructions on the party invitation and brings not his own unpublished manuscript but, rather, the children’s classic Island of the Blue Dolphins, and, despite his protestations, experiences sudden fame. In “Everyone at This Party Has Trendy Political Concerns,” the speaker, having missed the day’s news, suffers the affected ire of the better informed. In juxtaposition to these appropriately whimsical party-themed poems, many of the collection’s offerings provide poignant meditations on that cauldron of identity formation: family.
The families in this collection include abandoning fathers, a self-medicated mother, dearly missed, deceased grandparents, and, in “My Sister and I Build a Tabletop Model of Our Childhood Home, but Better,” a sister with whom the speaker explores possibilities for self-preservation with a Hansel-and-Gretel-like desperation. Their survival depends upon refashioning their childhood home (and the family who reside there) out of absurdly inadequate materials: a pepper shaker to represent their dream of an attentive father, and, to represent the mother, “a spent prescription bottle,” which the brother fills with a paper ball bearing the word thought, so that the mother won’t seem so empty (49).
The absent father appears in other poems, as well, including the heartbreaking “Pocket a Knight,” in which the son remembers the season of the father’s abandonment and how the vicissitudes of his behavior were predicted by weather: “The code was written in the afternoon sky. If the sun glowed white, he would stay. If raindrops hit the school bus window, he was leaving” (33). In an effort to forestall the father’s departure, the boy begins hiding the various daily artifacts of the man’s existence:
“On afternoons when he wasn’t home, but his chess set still sat in the living room, I’d pocket a pawn, a knight. I took the mirror he used for shaving the back of his neck. The plastic apple he’d toss hand to hand while reading the newspaper at his desk. His fuzzy slippers went under my bed. His heaviest book, his flathead screwdriver, his favorite mug, I thought he couldn’t leave without them” (33).
In this prose poem, the narrative element is straightforward and appropriate to the child’s uncomplicated need. Conversely, in another prose poem dealing with the father’s absence, “January Never Quits,” Modlin’s speaker is older and now long separated from the man, and so his longing becomes baroque and braided with other narratives—with an archeologist who “exhumed King Tut’s tomb” and a religious leader in Atlanta who “gains energy, wisdom by staring empty-bellied at the sun” (25).
One of Modlin’s most impressive attributes is range. With absolute naturalness, he moves from the fantastical to the matter-of-fact, from the kinetic to the quiet. With equal convincingness, he presents speaking envelopes, the challenges of dating, and, in the ecocritical “Day Nine,” a man and a speaking walrus floating southward aboard a drifting iceberg. The quieter poems tend to focus on private moments, as when the speaker of “Seeing My Grandmother Naked” happens upon his grandmother dying,
and the bedsheet slipped from her,
and then she noticed me.
And in the long quiet
of the brick house, I kept staring
because turning my head
might embarrass her more.
And when she pulled her own
bedsheet and shrouded
her own body,
the one real possession
still within her reach
was the rule of decency
she had always taught me. (23)
By contrast to such sustained pathos, other poems employ an extravagant, self-deprecating humor, as in the richly titled “These Days, the Only Sex I’m Having Is in My Dreams, and My Dead Grandparents Walk In and Interrupt It.”
In the collection’s final piece, “Inevitable,” pathos and humor collide with dizzying force. In this fantastical narrative, Modlin confronts the accelerating pace of modern life as having been literally inscribed in physical law, imagining humans inhabiting an Earth whose rotation is accelerating at
a rate of exponential increase. An increase
that begins so softly we barely perceive it at first: Alarm
clocks blare too early one morning, coffee cups are bare
before they’ve done their job. . . .
As the acceleration continues, its sinister nature becomes all the more apparent, especially as it invades our privacy and threatens to erode our relationships with each other and ourselves:
. . . by the time I invite
you to dinner at the Cambodian restaurant, we’re already
there, and before you can accuse me of flirting with the waitress,
she’s handed us our check and shooed us to the street, where
I lean to smooch you goodnight, but you’re
at home, fetal-positioned in your lilac pajamas. And I’m
at work stapling, stapling, stapling, and I
sneeze and miss my break, and tomorrow’s stapling
duties are on my desk before noon . . . . (85-86)
The increasing flux of life is met with advice from scientists, newspersons, politicians, and any number of corporations hoping to cash in on the collective anxiety. The clutter of all such voices accumulate confusion until out of the clamor emerge the voices of two lovers who defy gravity and the Earth’s acceleration in order to pledge themselves to each other—on a morning when
. . . daybreak clouds are throwing
us a congratulations party—and everyone at this party
is you and me. . . . (87)
This final poem exemplifies Modlin’s mixing of irony with heartfelt sentiment—often in images that nearly parody cheaper Hallmark emotion but that simultaneously penetrate to a core of authentic suffering. Throughout these poems, cognitive dissonance is battled by flights of the imagination, just as hardscrabble experience is not escaped but, rather, buoyed by whimsy. For anyone burdened by the weight of modernity, forget the chicken soup; pick up Brad Modlin’s wonderful book of poems.