NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Flirt by Noah Blaustein
(University of New Mexico Press, 2013)
Born in Santa Monica and raised in Los Angeles, California, Blaustein is the editor of the anthology Motion: American Sports Poems. He was an Editor’s Pick of National Public Radio and The Boston Globe and a Librarian’s Pick of the New York Public Library. His poems have been published in a variety of journals including The Harvard Review, The Los Angeles Review, Orion and Pleiades. Flirt is his first collection and it was selected by Hilda Ras and Kevin Prufer for the 2013 Mary Burritt Christiansen poetry series edited by Hilda Ras for the University of New Mexico. Blaustein lives in Santa Monica with his wife and children.
Blaustein’s poems are energetic, zany and wild. Nothing is off-limits. At one end of the spectrum he writes of gangbangers on a beach at night and of brutality in El Salvador. At the other end he writes about wisdom, love and affection.
The title of this collection tells us something about his intentions. In an interview with Thibault Raoult for The Georgia Review, Blaustein says that his aim in the book is to flirt with people and emotions and, in so doing, to offest the serious nature of many of the poems with a casualness that becomes apparent in the text: If anyone was going to read this collection, I had a responsibility to seduce them, but not exhaust them. Poetry is still entertainment, a performance of sorts. According to Blaustein, flirting is language getting rescued from mere communication and becoming more alive, imbued with double entendre and innuendo, energized.
Flirtation with language is obvious in this collection It begins on the contents page where the three sections of the book are divided into 10, 20 and 30 marked in Roman numerals that could also be construed as kisses: X, XX and XXX as opposed to sections marked out as I, II and III. The playfulness continues in the way that some of the content is displayed on the page. The text on a couple of pages is printed sideways on in two columns as opposed to being printed in the conventional way down the page. (The significance of this is lost on me). Sometimes there is a flirtation with internal rhyme as in American Thrush (I Want to Do Right but Not Right Now):
(in your end? Oh!...
and there is also teasing, as in Nothing Here Really Happened but Everything Here Is True for Blaustein’s poetry is sometimes a poetry of contradiction:
Everything in this world makes sense eventually. Except for the things that don’t.
and in the title poem he writes:
.....Life is funny
even when it’s not.
The title poem, incidentally, is crossed through. Am I flirting or am I flirting?
His subject matter is universal: love, sex, war and death. The framework within which these themes are worked out is often multi-faceted – it may start out innocently enough with a visit to the barber or a doctor’s appointment, but it very quickly transcends the mundane to address the bigger issues. In this way, Blaustein makes philosophical observations as he connects with the world around him. This fusion of the mystical with the casual makes for compelling reading.
Music, history, art and literature are clear influences on his work. In an interview with Kelsey Williamson, Blaustein admits that he listens to music while writing. He tells us that sometimes he hears a line and thinks that it would make a good title. Field of Diamonds In The Sky, although it does not have much to do with the song, takes its title from Johnny Cash’s Field of Diamonds; Rave On is taken from a Buddy Holly number and American Thrush: I Want to Do Right but Not Right Now is from Gillian Welch’s song Look at Miss Ohio on her album Soul Journey. The sheer lyricism of his work, its driving energy and its fast pace may well derive from the stimulus of listening to music while engaged in the process of writing poetry. The history is both economical and political – at one point we are on Wall Street and at another in El Salvador. Some of the poems in this collection make references to, or have their origins in, the work of specific artists, sculptors and printmakers such as Richard Diebenkorn, Jonathan Borofsky and Robert Irwin. There are literary allusions to other writers such as William James, Larry Levis and Fernando Pessoa. The rhythmic cadences of the Bible also weave their way into his lines.
The first twelve lines of Main Street give a good illustration of how much activity and variety Blaustein can pack into a small amount of space:
Around you, this café light, reflected
copper & inside the coach ordering
vegan chocolate cake for his girls.
On the news, spilled across the freeway’s
blackphalt, a shipment of hot pink sneakers
and here someone’s ex is late
& up the street the volleyball
team waits in flip-flops in a gym.
A man rollerblades by
dark & shirtless & native with two
Galapagos iguanas on his head –
everything is as it was before you left.
There is so much of interest going on here. No wonder he writes later on –
....I’m working on a formula
to slow life down.
For me, one of the most satisfying poems in this collection is the one titled How I Made My Money because it combines all the traits that make this book a winner: there is absurdist humour here, acerbic wit, clever imagery, social commentary and personal confession. The subject matter is a serious one but it is handled in a seductive way:
I sold letters of absolution as Christmas
gifts to the Lehman brothers. I made
my money the old-fashioned way – I told
a bull one thing and a bear another...
Later, in the same poem, Blaustein writes:
...When twelve hundred and fifty
blackbirds fell from the sky in a small
Midwest town, I shorted avain futures.
One of the most powerful poems in the book occupies the whole of the final section which touches on the war in El Salvador. In Blaustein’s hands, it could be about any war and the way in which those who have had direct experience of war learn to live with its trauma which haunts them for the rest of their lives. But this is also a very personal account given that his wife and her family were very much caught up in the conflict:
doesn’t talk about the war, yet I know
it lives inside her...
The poem ends with a prayer for their children. It is a prayer of hope which ends on a note of optimism:
How will our children internalize our violences...?
This is a prayer for them. This is a prayer
for my children asleep in their bunk beds
at sea level. May they never acquire
death’s thin cello wire,
what connects my cortex to my toes, what plays
memory’s midnight wrong song....
....There is beautiful music
out there. There is beautiful music.
There is beautiful music in this book. Even when the subject matter is serious, a sense of joy pervades this collection. Maybe it’s the description of coastal California or maybe it’s something to do with the zest with which Blaustein brings these issues to our attention. Whatever the reason, this is a fine debut and a good read. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).