The Lama's English Lessons
by Tony Trigilio
three candles press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
As the Associate Chairperson of Columbia College's English Department, Tony Trigilio may not find a lot of time to make live appearances in the Chicago Poetry Scene, but he tries his best. You are more likely to find him in the classroom or within the pages of Columbia Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Rhino, or The Spoon River Poetry Review. Trigilio is also a musician whose performances include spoken word.
The winner of the three candles press first book award, judged by Joseph Millar, Tony Trigilio's The Lama's English Lessons, is as rich as the darkest of chocolates and should be consumed just as moderately. If it is devoured too quickly its many layers will be overlooked and the senses will be overwhelmed.
The twists and turns in Trigilio's book create an unsettling anxiety-dream atmosphere in which subject matter is constantly evaporating and being replaced by something completely different. Trigilio brilliantly reconstructs the fragmented nature of dream imagery by using broken sentences, incomplete thoughts, and abrupt transitions from one's stream of consciousness into another's. Trigilio changes direction as easily as ripping a piece of paper:
Everything we do without permission
feels like theft: three small logs,
ash at the center of a triangle
Like a shock from a defibrillator, Trigilio never fails to jolt us with the unexpected:
When he leaned his ear
to his friends' mouths,
he seemed too young
to be going deaf.
His ear oily, aging at 24.
They didn't know whether to speak
louder or take a bite from it.
(from "It Came from a Clarinet")
Even in his prose poems, very rarely does Trigilio remain focused on a single train of thought, and when he does he leaps through time as if it doesn't even exist:
. . . He kept most of the sedatives / Doc prescribed when the kid made off with his car, crashed it / drunk into a ditch – her divorce. He took a couple, / broken in half with a murky fingernail, but didn't need them / after that. They made his eyes heavy, like his body took a bribe.
(from "Fever of Unknown Origin")
Trigilio often weaves his wild segues into a basket of repetition in order to create the odd effect of waking and falling asleep again. Some of his dream imagery is so way out there that it becomes intellectually challenging to keep up with. For example, how do "Falling monks flicker" or what are "hissing sand globes"? The narrative at times becomes so clouded in the ambiguous that the only way to satisfy the mind's eye is to savor the poem with a second read, slowly and with attention given to what is being said on the surface. Upon that second read, a new level to the poetry appears.
In The Lama's English Lessons, that which at first glance appears to be magical often turns out to be based in reality, and that which seems actual lingers like a mysterious aftertaste, making us doubt how accurately we are able to perceive anything at all. Take, for example, the words:
"Lakeside wind so loud it changes the subject" from the poem "In the Intersection, Jackson and State".
On the first read, our imagination sees the wind personified, changing the subject; but after thinking about it, we have to admit it is true that a harsh Chicago wind can make us forget what we are thinking, and that no matter how creatively he is doing it, Trigilio is simply stating a fact. What at first seems ridiculous and absurd in Trigilio's poetry later leads to an epiphany about what is right in front of our face.
However, trying to see the imagery in Trigilio's poetry with the mind is like looking through a pair of 3D glasses, except the image you see on the blue side is completely different than the image you see on the red side; instead of seeing one image with depth perception, we see the conscious merged with the subconscious, reality blended with fantasy, physical with mental, material with ethereal, opposites assimilated into an original unit, the subscript of what we believe to be truth. Trigilio makes fun of this writing process with his poem "Autoresponder@whitehouse.gov" in which he combines text from a government form letter with excerpts from a manual about surviving torture. This way of writing offers little instant gratification, but the puzzles in this book are not unsolvable.
It is often what is left unsaid that causes the reader to be unnerved, as if Trigilio is showing us existence through a strobe light; every other frame is missing and we are expected to fill in the blanks with things that are stored away and forgotten. Trigilio's writing style does demonstrate a remarkable confidence that the author possesses. He would rather make his audience think about his strange way of describing things than slam the meaning down so many throats:
Stink of mashed potatoes rises
from your tissues, they tolerate your bed,
its zoo fence rails for leaning on you.
You sweat sheets, a chain-linked rosary,
stiff-collared angels. Their priest cups
your hands in his profession palms.
(from "Visiting Hour")
This is not to suggest that this poetry is overly academic. Trigilio's poetry does not linger on symbolic, deeper meanings; in fact, the surface meaning is often just as elusive as that which is left unsaid. Although this may be a bizarre way to create a scene, Trigilio nevertheless places us into it with great authority, creating uncompromising imagery:
I cross the street
with a group of Americans.
We're the ones in shorts and sandals,
A man takes off black sunglasses,
a skirt swishes. Traffic police wear pumps.
(from "Oh, Death")
Moving on to yet another level, the effect this poetry has upon the reader often isn't caused by the words or imagery at all, but by the use of punctuation. For example, in the poem "Back to the Farm, 12/7" the first four couplet stanzas end with a period, but the next period doesn't appear until three couplet stanzas later. The effect this punctuation has upon the momentum of the poem is wonderful; it is as if Trigilio is kick starting a motorcycle, so that when we reach the fourth couplet stanza, we read the words with a quicker and more intense pace as if the engine is now blaring. In this and many other ways, Trigilio has a good time with the structure of his poetry, tackling difficult forms as if buttering a turkey. He also throws in an occasional near rhyme to add to the musicality of his language, but if there is music in his words it is definitely jazz not blues:
It's the first time he's knotted a tie.
In this standard flag-and-smile
boot camp headshot, Japan can be
just a wrinkle in the sky.
(from "soldier, 1942")
Trigilio's word trickery finally turns into a frightening point of view about what is real and what we see on television, and he manages to pull off an engaging political message within the zigzags of his imagination. In the end, we find that Tony Trigilio is not so much an authority on chaos but a harsh critic of what we consider to be order.
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Note: Here is a review of Tony Trigilio's new book, The Lama's English Lessons.