Now what does this have to do with Mark Halliday? Reading his sixth book, Thresherphobe, gave me something like that sensation. Many of the poems achieve a rare intensity. They remain luscious without succumbing to ornamentation. They are, I believe, that good.
A major thread in the book, particularly in the first section, involves older selves looking back at former selves. No one should be surprised this theme would occur in the poetry of a man now in his sixties. Perhaps it seems a little clichéd that it would. After all, do we really need one more poem of this ilk? Well, Halliday has a way of shriveling your biased expectations. In “Vacation Day in 1983,” the speaker is among a group of friends trying to get their collective act together so they can go play tennis. At one point he voices, “[…] Everybody senses that I’ll be the reason / we don’t get out the door soon.” His perception rambles along in Halliday’s ultra-talk fashion, noting who’s doing what, deploying description and snippets of dialog in an easy swagger that mirrors the rapport they all share with each other. After slightly more than a page of text, the poem closes this way:
I look for the can of tennis balls, someone already found it,
suddenly everyone is outside at the car
except me—life just happens absurdly full absurdly quick
ripeness is you know what all right Peter stop honking
away we go.
The poem’s method enacts its content. The divertive jolt at the end invigorates, and it comes just at the moment where we’d expect to see a grand proclamation on how fleeting our days are. Here the wisdom is the diversion.
Halliday’s wit is in full force from poem to poem. In “Talented Youth,” the speaker begins with a grumpy-old-man-routine to eventually unpack his own anxiety:
All these talented persons under thirty-five can go
fuck themselves. Just kidding, they’re fine
so human and vivacious with their little tattoos
which are slightly pathetic as self-enhancements but hey
youth has to declare itself [ . . . ]
The poem then culminates with the speaker turning inwardly, figuring he himself should “adjust”:
and not be a deluded old dude still grimly campaigning
for the lost cause of the deathless attractiveness I saw in my secret mirror
back when I too felt fizz-brash enough to say
Baboons of El Paso, cheerleaders of Pensacola,
tangerines flying through the soul of Des Moines,
desire is the torch in the cavern of the flimflam of time
and Savannah’s guacamole will suffice in the orgy of tropes.
Duller poems in the book are few and pass quickly. These include a couple of quaint sports poems and the blues-inspired “Livin’ in the World.” Otherwise, Thresherphobe is chock-full of pleasures. Halliday’s love affair with language engenders circus thrills, and he’s willing to cop to his passion. In “Ducks Not in a Row,” an imagined rendezvous contains this observation:
and then we’d be back on the terrace with further drinks—
I love the word terrace and it goes splendidly with drinks—
and soon our sex would be so all-encompassing
and so easy and wet and unambivalent
the world would become a sphere of sheer affirmation.
The book’s title is both an accurate relaying of mortal fear and a feint. Life can whack you to bits, and Halliday knows it, but his voice is so aware—and his ruminations so penetrating—that the poems offer a means of gritty transcendence.
PETER B. HYLAND’s first poetry collection, Out Loud, was published by Sheep Meadow Press in the fall of 2013. He is also the author of the chapbook Elegy to the Idea of a Child (Trilobite Press), and his poems have appeared in American Literary Review, Conduit, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and other journals and magazines.