by Mike Puican
Tia Chucha Press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
In the 2004 chapbook 30 Seconds, Mike Puican's poetry explodes like fireworks composed of clips from life. Believe it or not, the secret to absorbing this magical poetry is not a bit of the one hit wonder, but simply slowing down enough to focus on each clip. It helps to have a heightened mind's eye, though. Some people just don't have it. For those who don't see much outside of what's before their baby blues, this work might come across as a list of set ups with no punch lines, or a pile of unusual details or random observations drenched with metaphor. However, the dream images in this book don't just serve as absurd humor, but are clues into reality, such as the reality of the billboard in the following line:
leaning against the heads of men who say they'll cut our taxes.
A closer look at the work reveals some very strong storytelling, as well as some intimate details about the life of the author. Some recurring instances, such as standing on a table or forgetting to engage the emergency break, help to tie the poems in this book together, to form one unit of art. I won't linger on the message of the poetry, though, because there is enough artistry in Puican's craft to keep me busy for a while.
This book is, in fact, a visual smorgasbord, and I'm curious as to how Puican pulls it off. So let me take a close look at what Puican is doing here.
First of all, the vantage points in 30 Seconds are constantly in motion, and it's breathtaking. Take a look at what Puican does with vantage point in these two lines:
A woman applies her makeup at a traffic light while a chanteuse
pours her heart through a crack in the window.
(from "Clark and Belmont Ghazal")
What a great bit of confident imagining! Though the word automobile (or a synonym) is not mentioned, we are nevertheless placed in the automobile, as we look into an also unmentioned rearview mirror. Suddenly, we are no longer in the automobile, but outside of it, listening to the music coming from "a crack in the window." It may seem simple, but it is marvelous stuff.
Puican zooms in and out and pans around with remarkable grace. In the following lines, notice how he zooms in on the dog in order to see the unexpected detail, and then how he places that detail into a larger environment, one that we view almost from the sky:
The old man walks his wiener dog – her swayed back, nails clicking,
nipples hanging just off the sidewalk – connecting the neighborhood.
(from "Clark and Belmont Ghazal")
In the next few lines, Puican pans around; the vantage point launches from his bed, escapes as if out the window, soars off to the highway, then it zooms in on an object for more detail:
. . .As you sleep I listen to trucks
speeding down the expressway, Randy Travis
blaring from their stereos, bugs splattering
on their windshields. Never the same bug twice.
(from "In Paradise the Mind Wanders")
While reading the poetry of Puican, it's as if we can see though walls. Take a look at how Puican nearly proves the theory of relativity, as the following lines flash through space and question time with no physical constraints:
I wish it were five years from now.
Then it is. I see my daughter and ex-wife
like binary stars, bright, cheerful
and a billion miles away. In the lobby
an alien samples the quiche . . .
So the question arises: how can Puican create such an awesome sense of place when he doesn't linger on any one place at all, but dashes and zips around madly? Puican is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, slinging the bizarre from out of nowhere. There is a frantic speed to this work, and I think the energy from that momentum is what helps create such vivid details in the mind's eye.
Puican is a master at mood and atmosphere. He has his own, original way of creating it. What he does is find the peculiarity in what he sees, then he creates a half metaphor / half truth out of it. For example, think about what happens to the reader when absorbing the line "a werewolf screams into the pay phone". First the reader imagines the absurd, as if some beast had human characteristics; but then, it dawns upon the reader that it is actually a man in a costume, that what Puican is saying is truth, not magic. Somehow, this epiphany creates gravity and pulls the reader in, and as a result the image fleshes out its many layers, spontaneously causes a brief hallucination, and for that moment the reader is there, in Puican's place, looking out a window at a man in a costume under some dim streetlamp. We sympathize with the guy trying to feed the phone change, even though Puican has only used 12 words to describe him. Wow!
Snippets about sounds or smells or colors or the lighting don't hurt the atmosphere either, and Puican's brilliant acknowledgement of the world as a whole helps the reader to focus in on one small part of it:
A freight train throws rain
from a storm in the next town.
(from "At The Corner of Visible and Invisible")
In a way, Puican takes the same approach to his poetry as the field of marketing takes to making a commercial: when you have to jam all the information into 30 seconds, there isn't much room for fat. Puican's is a lean poetry that accelerates towards big climaxes.
Puican's is very demanding poetry. Reading it takes all of one's mental faculties, and even the act of blinking can wake the reader up from its spell. It is a thinking man's poetry. For example, the one short line "a woman says she's entropy" made me ponder for several minutes. I knew I had appreciated what Puican was saying when I found myself chuckling at the absurdity of it as well as at the reality of it, and then I could read on.
As for the message of the book, well, I'm not sure if this is a book about God or about careers or merely about how our lives can be summed up in 30 seconds, and there's probably no answer to that. I think each reader will see something unique in 30 Seconds, something about themselves perhaps.
Go back to the other Nine Lives
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Note: Here is a review of Mike Puican's book 30 Seconds.