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They, Too, Sing America: Buckley & Ott's Poets' Guide to America

John Gibbs

In his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman said, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Now, more than one hundred and fifty years later, John F. Buckley and Martin Ott have collaborated to give us Poets' Guide to America. The collection itself is comprised of fifty individual poems and celebrates America in a manner reminiscent of Whitman. That being said, times have changed. Buckley and Ott are writing about an America in the twenty-first century (Whitman never saw the twentieth) that has seen the likes of Desert Storm, South Park and the dot-com boom. Their collection is as high brow as it is low brow, which fosters a wide readership. Sometimes it helps to have read Mark Twain. Sometimes it helps to have seen The Dukes of Hazzard. Given what Whitman said of the United States we can assume Buckley and Ott have chosen an apt subject matter for collaboration, rife with both liveliness and tradition.

Before rushing to conclusions about the structure of the book, every reader should know that each poem's title does not directly correspond to a state ("The Desert of Puerto Rico" upsets any attempt to place each poem in one of the fifty states). Buckley and Ott's decision not to do so reinforces the elasticity and arbitrariness of state boundaries. Borders are usually a man-made construction (the exception being bodies of water and mountain ranges). And while the sequence of poems was, no doubt, carefully chosen, the poems can be read in a random fashion for they all possess a picturesque quality, which makes each entirely unique, but also contributes to the overarching landscape of the collection, i.e. America.

The opening lines of the book, "Dark wood paneling in Delaware. Drywall in Idaho" (12), direct our attention toward two things. One being the vast expanse of land that will be covered in Buckley and Ott's virtual road trip of the United States. The second being the image of walls, which by nature are meant to serve as physical barriers, separating land and people from one another. The poem continues, "Both suspend dartboards / surrounded by decades of pockmarks" (12), suggesting that perhaps these unintentional "pockmarks" are, in fact, more significant than hitting the bull's-eye, so to speak. The metaphor implies an uncharted America, an old America that exists off the grid, an America to be rediscovered by anyone willing to become lost inside it. How can we not want to read further?

The poem's final stanza reads, "Each hidden space serves as a synapse" (13), stressing the ingrained importance of Anytown, USA. The poem then urges the reader to plunge "one level deeper" into America, moving "one beat closer to the human heart" (13). In one swift and effective motion Buckley and Ott have successfully torn down the walls in the poem's opening lines and arrived at an image entirely concerned with the human condition.

Buckley and Ott are not afraid to experiment with a variety of conventional forms either. In fact, the scope of poetic structures can be read as a symbol for the diversity and panoply of cultures found within America. "Pantoum in Pittsburgh" explores the campus of Carnegie Mellon and conjures the ghost of Andy Warhol. "Ghazal in Georgia" is a half-humorous, half-heartbreaking homage to Coca-Cola. Stevens is channeled to roam the streets of San Francisco in "Thirteen Ways of Looking by a Blackbird." "The Man from Montana" adopts the shape of a prose poem to paint a lonely narrative of a dying cowboy. "Sestina in Seattle" rhapsodizes about Starbucks and pays tribute to Kurt Cobain; you get the idea.

Poems appear in couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc. This sometimes dizzying batch of forms mimics the range of both American and traditional poetic verse. The variation is all the more impressive when one remembers (it's easy to forget given the fluidity of these poems) the collaborative origins of the project. Somehow Buckley and Ott have preserved one another's voice while creating a poignant array of poems that appear to be woven homogeneously from the same strand of DNA. In essence, their new collection has brought a new poetic voice to the forefront of contemporary poetics. When poets collaborate it's the entire poetry community that benefits.

Poets' Guide to America can be read as an educational text as it makes heavy use of references to pop culture as well as to American and literary history. This is not to say that any moments in the text are impossible to unpack. At their very best, Buckley and Ott leave readers with an urge to run to their local library or computer and research what Pearl S. Buck and Honolulu have in common. They make classical allusions to Homer occasionally, most notably in "Tennessee Temptations" when "Circe wears her makeup thick like warning / signs" (34). Likewise, we are affronted with nineteenth century Victorian literature in "A Tale of Two Portlands" as it satirizes the familiar opening of Dickens' famous novel, "It was the best of lines, it was the worst / of lines" (44). The poem's conclusion recalls Eliot, "This is the way the old world ends, / not with more bangs or midnight whispers, / but with hot Oregon stoves, abrupt dial tones" (45). Regardless, the book can be enjoyed immensely without recognizing every piece of knowledge or reference embedded within the text. Buckley and Ott's clarity, sense of humor and piercing tone of originality create a space where unfamiliar readers can quickly discover something to love about this book.

Undoubtedly, we might find ourselves consistently lost within this collection like the Secret Service agent in "States" who "lost track / of what state he was in" (64). However, if while reading we remember that we are in the hands of two gifted and capable poets, we can begin to relax and enjoy the view from the back seat, while John F. Buckley and Martin Ott show us their beautiful and mysterious America.


Poets' Guide to America
By John F. Buckley and Martin Ott
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-936767-16-8



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