Reviewed by Lauren Grewe
In his chapbook VI Fictions, Chris Pusateri explores the possibilities for language in a postmodern, commercialist word, playing the literary equivalent of a game of Russian roulette as he flirts with the idea that language is empty, that the signs lead to endless signs. For Pusateri, this carnival hall of mirrors view of language, rather than limiting the language of poetry, opens up a whole new range of self-consciously futile exploration, as Pusateri tries to make language, and poetry, relevant for a world of supermarkets, internet porn, and composite selves.
For many readers, Pusateri’s chapbook will lack immediate approachability since he writes in disjointed, somewhat terse phrases, often connected thematically rather than through logical narratives. Indeed, some poems in this short chapbook appear to work purposefully for disorientation, as Pusateri links images as disparate as business cards, swimsuits, shirts, and rice cookers in a single poem. Yet beyond the apparent disorder, these short prose poems, mostly paragraphs composed of loosely associated sentences, frame certain themes as Pusateri searches for the deeper meaning behind that impulse buy in the supermarket line. As a poet, Pusateri delves into a stereotypically superficial world and resurrects not reverence or awe or anything religiously associated, but a sense that the “Clothes suits walk[ing] by with people in them” hide the deeper psychological tensions he articulates in his poems.
Pusateri’s poems display a marked inability to seriously consider the world around him, or perhaps he has rather too seriously considered his world. His characters (the main ones always male) view life through the beer goggles of fast-paced modern media and consumerism, coping in various ways with the modern death of certainty. In one poem Pusateri muses, “Every day the sun comes up a little later,” while in another he comments, “He decided that this year, June would have thirty-one days. Beneath his feet, he felt the year leap.” If there remains no reference point, no preformed settings in this world, then the possibilities become limitless, and, in their sheer infinity, terrifying. This view of the world complicates language, enabling it to work without purpose, for the sheer play of words, which has always been a main draw of poetry anyway. Yet Pusateri takes what many have accepted in theory and puts such ideas about language into practice in his poetry, collapsing the real with the fictional, until we can no longer tell one from the other and must admit that we impose such boundaries to begin with. Such a liberating view of truth allows Pusateri to playfully propose in his own book:
The book was unhooked, unzipped--the book was a ledger of old accounts. Beneath the flaking paint was its old haircut. The book readed a needer. The book was published by Exxon as part of the settlement. True or false: the book just wants you to listen.
Beyond sheer language experimentation, Pusateri exhibits a consciousness of the politics involved in saying anything at all, and in several instances he mocks big businesses and Hallmark materialist America. His incorporation of American capitalism through his use of advertising slogans points toward the political--or at least the aware--as he subverts overused slogans, trying to make us think about the way they operate on our lives with an incandescent beating as steady as the thrum of florescent lighting. He remarks, “Use only as directed implies unnamed consequences” and intones, “Once you cut the tag, all sales are final.” One drawback of this hyperconsciousness of postmodern, consumerist existence becomes apparent in the book’s overly constructed feeling. Emotion often feels suppressed in VI Fictions, as if real emotions could not survive an overly active self-awareness which includes so many superficial brand-name bearing voices. Indeed, Pusateri’s characters appear trapped in the superficial snow globe of their own exceedingly complex and yet exceedingly shallow lives, unable to make any decisions, important or unimportant--stuck in the volitional stasis that perhaps comes from desiring too much too often. Pusateri humorously addresses this volitional failure when he remarks, “She said he had problems committing. He couldn’t decide between chicken and pork.” With so many objects in reach, nothing really “seem[s] reachable” anymore, not an address “Euthanized with a piece of box tape,” not a book, not other people--“When socializing, he thought of the weather as his hole card”--not even ourselves. Yet this pathetic development, far from leading us to pursue other means of satisfaction, leads to more pleasure-dredging:
The savings of one dollar the coupon promised was just enough to make him buy the new product. While the product is new the idea is old. He was thirty (nearly) and through careful attrition, was beginning to consider that, while not old, neither was it young. The savings of hair (or: wrinkles, time, worry, etc) was just enough to make him purchase the new product.
But Pusateri delves into a realm beyond mere capitalist hand-slapping in his brief sojourns into an uncertainty provoked this time by the possibility of meaningful human connection. In his only vertically-oriented poem, he contemplates the connections, perhaps self-invented, perhaps not, between himself and the outside world:
. . . I wonder
if the woman in the window opposite mine is
every night performing for me. This has never
been proven by empirical methods. All my doubts
are reasonable and what lies beyond is any-
one’s guess. The hyphen is bridgework,
a simile between two otherwise intolerable
terminologies. I’m so tired of “I.”
In spite of Pusateri’s constant musings, or perhaps because of them, nothing in this book proves anything. Instead VI Fictions contains a world of postulations, sometimes delightful, sometimes acidic, always qualified within a particular consciousness. Pusateri remains cynical and highly critical of his world, giving the reader the impression that maybe she or he should hide for fear of further manipulation by the ad-inspired realm of modern social desires. Pusateri takes thoughts and desires you wouldn’t admit to having but secretly do and drags them kicking and screaming into the open, unmasking them as life’s superficial decision-makers. For Pusateri there resides little or no logic behind the wants of the average American John Doe: “Nobody orders it for the parsley, but no one would stand to be deprived.” If Pusateri’s poems offer any hope for the modern human condition, that hope remains in the ability of his characters to make fun of their situations, to recognize in their desires an emptiness and to mock that quality without perhaps ever escaping from it.
More than heroes, Pusateri’s characters are survivors, armed with “Syntactic tomfoolery, void where prohibited” with which to shape their media-driven existences if they can. Through these conflicted, self-doubting, self-loathing men, Pusateri depicts the challenges and rewards of a postmodern, consumerist life, where man as agent has become a fallacy and language as truth an outmoded shirt on an aged supermodel. Although stylistically and thematically Pusateri does not make his latest ride a comfortable one for his readers, his tricky leaps sometimes lead to insightful connections well worth the jump. Pusateri’s questioning of language in VI Fictions should challenge readers to further contemplate the medium of words, the words drawing attention to themselves as well as to the world they reenact in a way that prohibits the clear sight of windows but renders the view all the more captivating and self-reflective for the grime.