Another keeper from McSweeney’s fabulous poetry series, Dorian Geisler’s Flowers of Anti-Martyrdom is really fun to read. Like all books in the series, it is handsomely bound and has a great cover, plus contents that you’ll want to read twice, three times, who knows how many times. One of those books you want to tell your friends and family about to show them what poetry can be (can do), but at the same time you really wouldn’t want to lend it – this one will stay on my shelves for sure.
All the poems in this collection are titled ‘Poem’ so I’m going to go by page # when citing. There is a certain easiness that arises out of the non-existent individual titles – a sense that these poems flow together, though separate, and somehow blend with one another, though there are few direct references that tie them together. One recurring motif is the playing of an instrument, for example. Another is the distant, analytical voice that states facts while leaving us to (re)construct the emotional context in which they might occur.
The poem on page 24, “Some people were sad. Other people were dead” felt programmatic to me because it ends on a sort of mission statement: “So let us begin with a different Eduardo then. Let us write a book of poems called A Different Eduardo and let us pass it out to Eduardos and non-Eduardos alike. // But let us not forget about other things, either.”
We meet many characters in this book – many anti-martyrs, if you will. Take Fred, for example: “Fred was a happy motherfucker. Nothing else you could say.” (13) Like his fellow anti-martyrs, Fred has done little to achieve his state of happiness, it’s just something that he happens to be for reasons beyond his control: “People talked about genetic disposition, about parenting, about luck. But what could you say?” Tragedy is not really tragedy for Fred, because “everyone was sure Fred would bounce back”. Whether or not he did, in fact, bounce back, out of his grief, is left open. The poem ends: “Thinking about Fred’s grief now (for those of us who don’t know Fred) is like looking at a diamond, in a lawn chair on top of a mine.”
We who don’t know Fred can see his grief, something hard and presumably valuable in a counter-intuitive place (a lawn chair rather than a safe or a piece of jewelry), made even more strange by the added bomb. Do we dare approach the diamond? Why would we approach it? To admire it, to prove our courage (or compassion?), or to seize it while nobody’s looking? Is any of that worth the risk of the mine going off? Will Fred set off the mine himself? Is he the mine?
The textual simplicity of these poems contrasts with the complexity of the thought processes they trigger. The collection has a unique, recognizable voice that ties the poems to one another and helps build a world in the space of only a few pages. There is a dry humor in this book that really works for me.
Take Jane, who is (we are told) “looking for the limits of human ability – but the good kind.” (28) Instead of a long, adventurous journey with plenty of danger, sacrifice, and character-building along the way, our anti-martyr / anti-heroine asks for, and is given, directions.
By now you might get the drift of this collection, and you might worry that the theme might get old really quickly, but Geisler successfully sustains it for the full length of the collection: the characters we meet, the strange, detached voice that hands us bits of information about them, all this stays interesting because every piece of information we are given points to a handful of important pieces that are withheld. “Did you see the boy?” (20) gives us a dispassionate description of what might well be a very disturbing scene – but we are left to wonder. “I saw two feet, small feet, like the feet of a boy. […] And I saw the bottom of his elbows. Like he was huddled in a ball, but I could only see the bottom of the ball, underneath the stall.”
The Flowers of Anti-Martyrdom is full of people who aren’t what they look like: Larry looks like “what a superhero might look like were he to disguise himself as an ordinary person” (81) and Peggy “wasn’t a real policeman. Policewoman” (20). The one instance where people are named as what they are might be in “The ‘X’, the ‘not-X'” (81), where a child with half a chicken leg yells out “Strangers collide!” like a revelation. But this revelation, too, isn’t quite real; it is mediated (quite literally): “It was as if she had heard the phrase on a TV show, and now was excited to repeat it at exactly the right time.”
This is a smart and darkly funny book that tells some of non-stories of the non-heroes that populate our every-day lives.
P.S. As I’m writing this, McSweeney’s has a sale going on, where you can get virtually the whole poetry series for a fraction of the original price. If you’re looking for cool gift ideas for your book-loving / poetry-loving / literate friends, family, and loved ones, and like the idea of also helping bring more excellent poetry books into print, look into this! Here’s the link: (and no, I’m not getting paid for this.) https://store.mcsweeneys.net/products/full-poetry-run