(Los Angeles, CA: Heartworm Press, 2015)
Exactly how dangerous is it to stare at the sun? This is a question that I find myself asking throughout Eric Paul’s second poetry collection, A Popular Place To Explode. No, the book isn’t particularly scientific, nor do we find a piece within the collection that begs this question in a literal sense. Rather, it offers a gravity, which draws me in by my most severed of heartstrings. Like the sun, the poems are brilliant, and they are violent: a distinct and impressive combination. And I find myself wanting to stand and stare in awe, always…although, I’m never completely certain that I should. Is it safe? Probably not. But I find myself unable to turn away.
I quickly realize the danger. “Outside, hookers with poke-and-stick tattoos, whose clothes are dirty and tight, slip in and out of cars in the dark.” Even before this, within the collection’s opening poem, “The Losers,” we encounter a nightmare-esque tale: a high school principal replaced a team’s mascot, hoping to end an incredible losing streak. The change was fruitful until Faith ate “the cafeteria’s mystery meat and died.” After another run of losses, the principal was left with only one plan of action:
[He] dug up Faith, glued her back together, and attached her to a furniture dolly which had been spray painted the school colors […] and the principal announced into a blaring microphone, that he was going to wheel the reconstructed goat to the field or court for every game.
Paul explains the student body’s reaction to the Franken-goat: together “we cheered wildly. Our school spirit had never been stronger.”
No doubt, followers of Paul’s former noise-rock projects, Chinese Stars and Arab on Radar, and his current group, Doomsday Student, impatiently awaited the collection’s pub date. However, A Popular Place To Explode is for rockers and readers alike. In fact, the collection is for everyone …okay, almost everyone. (I’m not trying to make my grandmother cry.) Simply put, Paul writes what many others wouldn’t dare, and, more notably, he processes and presents emotional information in a way that many of us cannot. Combine the riotous nature of a veteran noise rocker with the sensibilities of a formally trained surrealist poet—complete with fantastic imagery and disorderly juxtaposition—and then, just maybe, you might begin to envision the poetry of Eric Paul. (You should, however, just read the collection.)
This strange and inclusive book introduces us to a neighborhood, one that might, at first glance, be not so unlike our own. We meet the neighbors: the one who lives to the left, the one who lives to the right, the neighbor who spends “all day on his porch talking to himself,” and many others. There’s even that neighbor… you know the one: the woman with boys who shouts so loudly that the entire block can hear her. Surely, you must have found yourself in such places: areas populated with mothers, aunts, uncles, wives, and others. In “The Frustrated Man,” we even make pedestrian stops, including one at the laundromat. There, however, we find a woman weeping, and as we venture through the rest of the town, we encounter only teary-eyed residents, from the supermarket stocker to a stray cat to the local news anchor, and even he fails to answer this question: “Why is everyone crying?” Paul writes:
Exasperated, I gave up and went home to water my flowers – I often do to relax – but when I turned on the garden hose nothing came out. I checked my kitchen faucet: nothing. I tried the shower, nothing came out!
Through their waterworks, “those assholes had used up all the water!” and the speaker himself begins to cry. Here, we are reminded that even at our darkest, people are interconnected—not so unlike the student body’s rallying around misappropriated taxidermy—and this sense of community is, throughout the collection, our comfort and our anchor, even when it is our bane.
Almost nothing makes sense within A Popular Place To Explode, yet everything makes sense. Each poem creates a world within which we can plausibly exist in all of our strangeness and with all of our fears: within these worlds, we can find “two faceless mannequins standing in the kitchen wearing […] mother and father’s clothes,” we can force shreds of typewriter pages into a dying uncle’s feeding tube, and we can even survive “death tricks” (i.e. “jumping into a swimming pool hugging a few plugged-in kitchen appliances”). Paul seems to deconstruct our literal world, within which, for example, “the morning sickness rushes through [a man’s wife] like consumers through a box store on Black Friday,” in order to put everything back together again, but in new and meaningful ways: “I’m doing all the wrong things. I watch as she pukes up a bowling ball. Why the bowling ball I ask? You’re an asshole! she snaps. How can you forget? Our first date was at Lang’s Bowlarama.”
In this vein, many of these aptly metaphorical and narrative-heavy pieces—most of which are rather short prose poems—seem to be nothing less than complete origin stories. Within one poem, a father, who is a hoarder, is lost to “a city he founded in his brain.” Within this creation myth of sorts, “Families of stray animals move in beneath the ceiling-for-a-sky that holds the suffering sun and moon.” Despite the poems’ general brevities, each is big enough to host complete uprisings, births and deaths—both planned and unplanned—and even mother-in-law visits.
Eric Paul has created a world in which it is okay to stare at the sun, or the man with “fork-and-knife hands” who is “surviving on a diet of near-death experiences,” or even “The Mirror Man and Me” (and, as implied by this title, yourself). In fact, the collection’s own distinctive identity is so strong that it truly is deserving of its own time and space: A Popular Place To Explode. Importantly, these vulnerable experiences of self-revelation are much like the ones that a reader might have upon opening and entering. In the dark, Eric Paul illuminates the streets of our new neighborhood, sometimes by streetlight and, sometimes, by explosion. It is, however, for us to explore.
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Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review.