Missing brother
Her child’s late father
Recurring name
(A city they made a movie about as a joke)
Carnivals
Blood oranges
Winter as the unmentionable omnipresent (like skyscrapers and hostility in New York)
Vanished sea
Chuckling, disgusted
“Gods are so cool”

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what in Paula Cisewski’s Ghost Fargo keeps getting to me. I make lists, but the lists are subjects, and names of subjects are more like paint chips than the eventual mood of a room, and besides, lists are overrated. I reread the book from back to front to see if any unresolved drama in the work (such as the first few lines of the list above) is leading me to read warmth where what might equally be there is what Roland Barthes called writing degree zero. The vibe (what is it) is still there. I turn to other readers for help. She loves language, one says, and she is unsentimental. Ok. Another, a poet I read, says: fate (yes) and that, in her first book, when she makes an interesting leap, she doesn’t always give the reader time and space to understand it. Another critic sees jumps too. I don’t see jumps, though. I show her work to my friends, but my friends don’t want to hear about poetry not by them. Fuck ‘em.

You think everyone knows
all about a thing so you don’t

write it down, don’t say.
Everybody does know

about it. It is difficult.
In the backs of our minds,

while several separate
groups of humans try

to entertain one another,
to be novel or bright,

a similar thought spider crouches.

(beginning of “Vintage Blue Anywhere”)

I can tell you what I don’t like: now and then she mixes up transitives and intransitives, uses an adjective as a noun (“his foolish heroic”), overdoes it with the praise of disappointment and thrift stores, or commits an asinine bout of all over the page a la cummings. And then, just as I’m ready to set the book aside, she issues an apology in the form of telling a truth, not a great one, only so-so, but recognizably true all the same:

O good parents of Fargo!

How you fret, and yes!

Your teens are smoking weed

in the Taco John’s parking lot,

all the windows rolled and fogging.

(The dusk is not funny, Paula. Don’t be an ass.)

(from “the poor choruses”)

Everybody wants the credibility that comes with being real, but very few people put up with all the crap being real requires. Incidentally, I learned recently that the Wikipedia munchkins monitor articles there for “peacock words”&#8212unsubstantiated terms of praise. I bring it up because the word true as I’m using it is sounding more like a peacock word to me than best or greatest usually do. It probably embarrasses the poet, who is quick to give away any truth-gotten gains: “Oh, sincerity. Let’s not / train our grief to resemble a parlor trick.” A sincere person would say that, wouldn’t she. Yes, but only an awesome writer would change the subject like so:

Recall The Loverboy girls.

The Loverboy girls! A triumvirate
Strut through the mezzanine
in their groupie band T-shirts,
festooned with bandanas!
Now, I am happy again.

(from “the poor choruses”)

It would be an achievement along the lines of widening the frame on Larry Clark photographs or following the interview subjects of “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” home if Cisewski simply stacked up 90 pages of the happy and unhappy dumb things kids do in small Midwestern cities, and it would probably sell a lot of copies. This would be a hypothetical book. The book Cisewski actually wrote does something else.

Are all mothers headless
like mine?
How she hated
to see her face
in a photo. It never
turned out right.
She Exacto knifed it.
She made a neat box
of nothing there.
Sometimes hair rollers
floated above the void,
sometimes a spoon aimed at it.
Mother, we are new in Fargo
and cannot show this album
to prospective friends.

(from “Ode to Tethers”)

Cisewski has the fun and horror of telling the truth about herself and the city and everyone around her, and at the same time she reconciles herself to the good and the bad, at some cost. It doesn’t look easy. It reminds me of some writers I usually think of as inimitable: Bishop, Schuyler, Wright (fils).

Consider: the artist who was famously ironic

about being ironic. By each show’s end,
the whole audience felt stupid. We loved it!

But some of the crowd was only pretending,
you find out much later. It’s no wonder,

when even the family cat’s on
Prozac, we’re tired of emotion in art.

(middle of “Vintage Blue Anywhere”)

Speaking of the good and the bad: that bit about the cat is probably not immortal poetry. I accept it because by this point in the book I’m conditioned to expect something likely. As when she suddenly discloses some kind of medical intervention, then lets the inland sea of her discretion close over it: “The nurse who has to read the journal I have to keep / tells me I am a good writer and I begin to like her some.” As when, in a poem about visitors to the zoo providing orangutans with lit cigarettes, she pays homage to Russell Edson’s primates inadvertently or on purpose, and then backs away from the experience. As when she follows the apparent platitude “Sometimes dusk / is just a day’s punch line” with a few lines that feel strong as a punch:

In the darkening I lie beside my love.
Steeped in separate pasts,

we muster together one
good, deep laugh.

(from “the poor choruses”)

I’m resigned to the fact that for now I don’t know what makes me want to reread this book. Maybe it’s just one of the best books of a very good year not over yet, one in which there’s about as much time to reflect as Cisewski gives at the end of “Vintage Blue Anywhere”:

That antique sadness is the new
inside joke. It’s irrevocable, like when driving home

one night, the stranger who pulls up to the red light
next to you is weeping, both your windows

rolled up. You just begin to have a human reaction,
and then the light’s green.