Michael Bazzett’s first full-length collection, You Must Remember This (Milkweed Editions), shows a poet fluent in many registers. Though they range from irony to frightening sincerity, these poems are unified by their ability to make the familiar strange and to make the strange unsettlingly familiar.
One of the most outstanding poems from the collection, “Cyclops,” shows Bazzett at the height of his skill as an ironist. The poem begins:
The story is such a story we don’t always stop to think
about what it was like to be there: that cavern floor
packed with pungent dung, dark as the inner bowels
of an animal when that slab dropped into place: how
utterly it sucked to hear the oaf stirring in his stupor
made uneasy by wine mixing with the bolted flesh
of good friends dispatched while we watched –
it was just a flat-out bad deal for everyone involved.
The poem nicely establishes the stakes in the first line: since we have heard the story so often, it has lost its urgency and terror. The poem’s rich description of the “cavern floor / packed with pungent dung” suggests one way that we could attempt to reclaim that terror: through vivid, mythic description. It’s a potentially effective strategy, but a familiar one – and as such, it runs the risk of losing its power in the same way the story has. So Bazzett takes a surprising turn to the contemporary, with the wryly understated slang of “how utterly it sucked” to be trapped in this “flat-out bad deal.” The tonal shift is surprising and funny, and leaves us somewhat unmoored: what had appeared to be a stable tone has suddenly shifted underneath our feet. Even the ironic tone, however, is unstable: amid the jokes, we also see flashbacks of the drunken giant eating “good friends dispatched while we watched,” a shift back toward the mythic straightforwardness of the opening lines. The tonal vacillation (as well as the shift between mythic and contemporary diction) destabilizes us, forcing us to really consider the scene. It can no longer be “a story [that] is such a story”: instead, the ironic humor paradoxically works to make the scene newly serious, and newly frightening. Here is irony in the hands of an expert.
Not all of Bazzett’s techniques are so flashy. The poem also shows the subtle skill of a careful craftsman. Notice how the poem’s opening sentence introduces the use of both present (“we do not always stop to think”) and past (“what it was like to be there”). From the beginning, we’re primed to see the present and past coexisting. For that reason, as the poem begins to collapse the difference between the two, we scarcely notice, which creates an unsettling sense of inevitability:
[Odysseus had] had plenty of time to think there in that hollow
belly smelling of fear and fresh sawdust holding his
piss in one endless clench counting droplets of sweat
rivering cold over his ribs and under his breastplate.
And now here he is again groping for his sharpened
pole in pitch dark…
In the flashback scene to the Trojan Horse, the repeated use of participles alongside fast-paced line breaks creates a sense of endless, ongoing urgency. Though it remains grammatically in the past, the scene nonetheless feels as if it is pushing its way into the future. In the stanza that follows, the grammar shifts to the present tense – the past becomes even more present, and it is as if the language itself must follow. In this way, the poem once again revives the story, making it disturbingly new.
Though skilled in the use of irony, Bazzett does not depend on it. “The Dark Thing” shows how powerfully Bazzett can play it straight. The poem begins:
It used to come into the light,
so deeply creased it seemed to be scarred,
bristling with hairs like a baby elephant.
Its hunger was slow and stolid but also
always there, tusks clicking above its steady
jaws as it moved among the trees.
Like the most frightening myths, the poem immediately taps into our primal fears – wooded darkness and the hunger of an unfamiliar predator. Yet there’s also that hint of compassion, the creature almost like a “baby elephant.” This is hardly a threatening comparison – and indeed, the creature never actually makes any threatening moves toward the villagers. It’s a well-chosen simile, as it makes the story’s continuation all the more disturbing:
…When the first blade
cut and drew a startling thread of blood,
it moaned so quietly we backed away.
It sounds like my grandmother in her sleep,
someone whispered. We looked
at one another. The thing was barely
Though the comparison to the grandmother unsettles, perhaps the most troubling part of the passage operates on us unconsciously, at the level of grammar: “When the first blade / cut…” The construction of the sentence suggests inevitability: it was not a question of if the humans would attack the creature, but when, so the phrase is delivered as a foregone conclusion. This myth indeed touches a primal fear – but it is not the fear of monsters so much as the fear of our own capacity for violence. It is the poem’s ending, however, that unsettles most:
…It had been so much
easier than we’d imagined.
This is what we would have said,
if we had spoken of it again.
Killing was “so much / easier than we’d imagined,” and we understand that frightening fact – it’s “what we would have said.” But in truth, we say nothing. Instead, we bury the deed inside ourselves and remain isolated inside our separate memories of communal violence. All of these dark insights are delivered in only three and a half lines – Bazzett can handle frightening sincerity with as much grace as he can handle irony.
Because Bazzett has the capacity for such a unique voice, it’s especially disappointing when he relies too heavily on his influences. Take a poem like “The Orangutan,” which reads as an unattributed imitation of Russell Edson’s “Ape” – down to the prose format, the characters called by their familial roles (Father, Mother, and so on), the surreal statements in a matter-of-fact tone (“They were more than a little embarrassed when it turned out their orangutan was electric”), and even the suspicion that a woman in the family has made love to the titular great ape It’s not that Bazzett’s poem is bad – it’s just that it doesn’t feel like Bazzett’s poem. Likewise, since Bazzett has such capacity for graceful craftsmanship, it’s unfortunate that some of the poems can become very heavy-handed. Take “from A Natural History of Silence,” for instance, which opens with “So many silences:” and proceeds to list various types of silence for three pages. The length would be no problem if the silences named were fresh and surprising, but unfortunately they tend toward cliché: “the silence / of the loaded gun,” “The silence of stone,” or “The cello groaning / into the tuned calm // that precedes the song.” Worse, the poem ends on a note of self-aggrandizing metapoetry: “the general quiet // of you // reading this: the silence of the birdbath / waiting for rain.” The reader is cast as an empty vessel, awaiting heavenly rain from the godlike author – quite an off-putting image for the relationship between poet and reader.
But if I sound harsh regarding these missteps, it’s only because I have been so moved by Bazzett’s best poems. They set such a high standard that I find myself feeling any disappointments all the more acutely. The fact of the matter is that You Must Remember This is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in some time. To successfully combine the mythic, the humorous, the surreal, the mundane, the ancient, and the contemporary as Bazzett does is impressive enough. But to do so with such subtly powerful craftsmanship is quite a feat. The book lives up to its bold title: these poems reward each rereading, and are absolutely worth remembering.
J.G. MCCLURE is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including, most recently, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press). His reviews appear in Colorado Review and Cleaver. He is at work on his first collection.