by Franki Elliot
Curbside Splendor Publishing
Reviewed by CJ Laity
This review contains some adult language.
Curbside Splendor certainly has been making some splashes around town. The buzz: it is the up and coming Chicago lit publisher. The fact that Curbside has now taken over the 33-year-old Another Chicago Magazine from Left Field Press certainly isn't going to hurt their momentum any, and despite the cover of ACM's Issue #50.2 (the second in the Chicago series) drawing attention to the poets themselves rather than the art of literature, if what is contained within is even half as impressive as Issue #50 this should seal Curbside's fate as a Chicago publisher that we can depend on for years to come.
So, it's about time I take a look at one of Curbside's titles. I'll take a look at piano rats by Franki Elliot, having received a copy for being the 1000th person to "like" Curbside's Facebook page (no kidding). I'll review this title in my usual way, the way I've been reviewing poetry for the last twenty years. I won't look at piano rats from the perspective of some graduate student trying to impress you with a bunch of fancy incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. Instead, I'll discuss the poetry in piano rats in layman's terms. In other words, I'm going to give it two readings and then I'm going to simply let you know what I think about it. Fair enough?
According to the bio at the end of the book, piano rats received some success as a self-published book before it was picked up by Curbside, which then published it in an attractive, compact 4' x 7' edition that will have older folks pulling out their thicker glasses to read the tiny font. Based upon the dedication from the author, this is a book of confessional poetry. I really had to wonder, though, as I read it, if this is actually based on the author's true experiences or not, because if it is true that there is little difference between the author and our narrator, that is startling. This collection of poetry is, after all, extremely harsh and our narrator doesn't seem to give a lick about the people who might feel personally hurt by the stories that are being told, if they are based on real people. (On the other hand, I was impressed to learn that Franki Elliot is in her twenties; I assumed someone with such a lack of self-censorship might be an older person who is looking back on her youth.) I struggled with this dilemma a bit and finally decided to assume that, although poetic license has been taken, that these poems are indeed based, to some extent, on the author's observations, for if these poems aren't confessional, I find it difficult to recognize their overall purpose.
That said, all the poems in piano rats are prose poems even when not written in paragraphs. Normally I'd get annoyed and say, "Call flash fiction what it is and stop pretending it's poetry," but in this case it works, despite the formula of our narrator repeatedly seeing something and then thinking something outrageously off-topic.
Our narrator exists alone in her world full of cigarettes, booze, crack cocaine and grotesque characters, who themselves are mere objects that generally wish they were something else. In her world, products have names such as Miller High Life but people are but mere pronouns. Even when she is in the company of others and even when she is making physical contact with someone, she feels alone. The poems tell stories of cold conversations about often obscene things during which our narrator takes it all in without feeling a thing. These things take place in private: in a hallway, in a car or on a bus. Our narrator has no qualms about revealing the secrets of these private encounters ("I remember your mother . . . got arrested . . . swearing like a sailor one night at the bar."). In fact, she let's us know from poem one that she can't keep a secret. What's even more disturbing is she reveals secrets about private encounters she has had with her own family as well, including a drunk grandmother, drug addicted grandfather and "bull dyke" mom. The details, if you can call them details, come in the form of pulling skeletons out of the closet, and that is a fine metaphor because like a skeleton the details lack flesh and blood. Finally, these brutishly honest tales seem to be told to an audience of one; they are sort of letters to an ex-boyfriend as the case may be.
At first the poems in piano rats came off as highly offensive, because our narrator is bitingly judgmental and not very subtle about the disdain she feels for, well, everyone. In her descriptions she uses such titles as "used car salesman" or "Jehovah's Witness" or "window washer" as if they are insults. When she talks about the homeless, she lets us know in no uncertain terms that she thinks they are "bums":
Sitting at the Laundromat, the bums walk in and out,
asking for our quarters, we shake our heads and feed
them to machines instead.
(from the poem "7 Hour Kiss")
One of our impassionate narrator's lovers is actually described as "an uncircumcised child" who is "my second Asian."
Similarly, the rest of the imagery in piano rats is just as Gurlesque. There are only a handful of beautiful images in this book and those are either inspired by crassness (such as how someone's confession of being raped makes our narrator ". . .think of things like collecting candy . . . or my purple bike with ribbons . . ."), or followed by crassness:
Parting oceans. Cherry blossoms blooming.
Birds on fences in rainstorms."
Whatever the fuck happens when
the opposite of falling in love occurs.
(from the poem "Poetic Memory")
More often than not, though, there is just crassness: "spring smells like cat piss"
I'll admit, at first the narrator was too cynical for me to like. She comes off as terribly mean, especially from my perspective, that of a middle aged man:
"But it's the hypersensitive ones
that always say I use them
even if they can't keep their dicks hard."
(from the poem "Everclear")
or how about this gem:
I was tired.
His story was sad. I had to take a piss.
(from the poem "The Coldest Person I've Ever Met")
However, eventually our friendless narrator's consistently unapologetic cynicism grew on me, as I started to understand her helplessness, disappointment and self-loathing, and as some of her stories reminded me of instances in my own life. I began to feel some compassion for this person who can only see the dark side of things. When she goes on a road trip all she remembers are "washed-up towns and stretches of oil refineries." When she thinks of her grandmother's birthday all she can imagine is that it falls on the same date as Hitler's. She is so detached that she can't understand anyone's motivations or feelings, has such an utter lack of empathy that she doesn't even try to. And she knows there is something wrong with that. She tries to cope with her abnormality the best way she can, existing as sort of a ghost that is constantly seeking love even though her personal philosophy is "love sometimes is just another word for jealousy." Desperate for companionship, she seeks out others who are as cold and neurotic as she is, even if she ultimately lacks the ability to get any emotional satisfaction from these relationships.
There are some poems in piano rats that stand alone as great, such as the poem "Slow Process" that really captures what it's like to be depressed, to have to "remember to do things, even if it feels impossible." Mostly the individual poems don't really stand alone, out of the context of piano rats the book that is, but most do eventually become great within the body of the work as the narrator is sort of anti-fleshed out. For example, for some reason I experienced a heightened sense of imagery in my mind's eye when reading the following stanza from the poem "I Hate Winter":
I imagine a 4 a.m. bar with crooked strangers and dim lights,
you making small talk with a semi attractive girl while
waiting to buy drinks at the bar.
I'm not sure Elliot would have delivered me to this point of escape had I not read the previous 36 poems that gave me a sense of the tone leading up to this, but according to our narrator, "going mad is a slow process," so I understand why the poems work together so well and why the earlier poems don't seem as strong as the later poems, even though they're all written with equal talent.
If piano rats has any moral, it's that surviving sometimes involves believing that "bad things aren't necessarily not beautiful" and that madness should sometimes be framed like works of art. And the overall metaphor, that we are all just rats living in an old, rotted piano, gives the work a certain largeness.
It took me a while to warm up to it, but after experiencing it from cover to cover, I give piano rats two big quills up.
Order piano rats by clicking here.
Note: Click Here to read the full review of Piano Rats.