About the Dead by Travis Mossotti,
Utah State University Press, Cloth $19.95
reviewed by James Crews
In his 2011 May Swenson Award-winning first book, About the Dead, Travis Mossotti sketches a larger-than-life canvas for his readers, taking us from Van Gogh’s home in Arles, France to Aynor, South Carolina, to the Meramec River in “backwoods” Sullivan, Missouri and far beyond. It’s no surprise that Garrison Keillor culled Mossotti’s manuscript from hundreds of other entries, for About the Dead is nothing if not distinctly American; see, for instance the “box cars,” “fencerows,” “sweet flag,” and “fried okra.” Follow the speaker and his cast of hard-luck characters as they veer toward the realization at the heart of each poem in this collection: “there is no other life but this.” Grief—from a father’s death, we guess—finds its way into many of these poems and is especially palpable in the book’s long opening piece, “Decampment” (also a haunting animated short adapted by the poet’s brother, Josh). This poem signals immediately there will be no refuge in the sterile lyric, no nod to safety in this collection. Mossotti is betting everything he has and raising the stakes. “It’s No Secret,” which shows this poet at his unsentimental best, finds a speaker trapped in an airport, confessing:
. . . I wish I could tell the girl
with pigtails and wings for arms
that we’re all secretly waiting
for the moment our bodies unbuckle
from the ground and rise into blue . . .
True, but Mossotti can’t let it go at that—he’s come by too much knowledge the hard way, and so he has to drag us back down to earth:
. . . I imagine that, like me, one day
she will find her father gripping
the armrest of the red sofa, eyes
like white marbles cut in half,
scotch melted into water on a coaster.
“Eyes/like white marbles cut in half” captures the image of the silent, withdrawn father—which is all fathers, we realize, at some point. And so many of these poems dwell in that space of clarity where innocence—however much we had to begin with—is forever replaced by hard knowing. The poet’s no victim, though; he’s just after the plain-spoken truth, often delivered in sucker-punch lines that leave us reeling. “The one who hangs on the longest dies twice,” he tells us at the end of “Barber.”
Unlike so many books of poems published these days, About the Dead tracks real things and real people struggling through their lives. It is unabashedly narrative but is also at times funny, shifting, undaunted by the challenge of telling a good story or constructing the flawless moment. Mossotti revels in the daily strangenesses that show up at our doorsteps and moves from a night at the Red Roof Inn “reeking from the awful, / yellow liver of the last trucker / who slept here,” to the “breaking news” of “a pastor sermonizing Nietzsche / burst into flame.” He wants us to smile with him too, when he declares, “So I married the daughter of a police captain,” in spite of “one flagrant / violation of order and decency after another.” And in “The Funhouse of Mirth,” like a carnival barker he’s articulating his own poetics (though he’d never use that word) but warning us at the same time:
. . . If there’s a storyline here it spirals
like a tourniquet and only has room for two strangers
waving pistols from the Pyrenees to a truckstop waitress
in Kansas . . .
Mossotti is always letting us in on his project, acknowledging and half-apologizing— unnecessarily, one might add—for the picaresque quality of his narratives. One turns to poems like these because we sense what fun the poet had actually getting them on the page, and as Keillor points out in his fine introduction to the collection, any slow, pleasurable “climb” through this book will reward us tenfold, leading “to a magnificent view,” and perhaps a better understanding of ourselves.
It might have been the reference to Paris and the Catacombs in the book’s title poem (“bones—/stacked so neatly”), or the young couple the speaker sees “fucking/ on Jim Morrison’s grave,” but as I read About the Dead, I kept thinking of James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, the words of one character seeming especially apt:
You have never loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror . . . You want to be clean. You think you came here covered in soap—and you think you will go out covered with soap—and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes in the meantime.
Travis Mossotti’s poems bring us more deeply into our humanness but with tenderness for this “soft, dysfunctional, waiting earth” on which we’re all doing our best. “Take off your shoes, please,” he says, but we know it’s not so things stay clean; he wants us to kick back and enjoy this wonder-fueled roadtrip. And don’t trust him either when he says, “This house isn’t much to look at.”
Crack open About the Dead to just about any page and start reading these lasting, risky, rollicking poems.
You won’t want to stop.