How a Singer Can Sing in Prose

/ /

Today In the Taxi
by Sean Singer
(Tupelo Press, 2022, 78pp., $19.95)

To begin, I’ll relate two personal literary anecdotes having to do with the prose poem: 1. I once submitted some prose poems to J.D. McClatchy at the Yale Review. He wrote back to say he liked them ok but then said: “No lines? I don’t see the point.” Even though I do myself very much love the line, after reading his note I must have rolled my eyes. We’ve all read great prose poems. That’s the point. 2. An afternoon with Mark Strand in Madrid in 2014 a few months before he died. We had met a couple times, but he didn’t know me at all. He had taken a fall in the bathtub earlier that morning. He was cut and bruised and hurting. He was just off some experimental cancer treatment which had nearly killed him, but he remained hopeful. He wanted to take me to the better coffee shop, so we walked five or six long blocks from his apartment to get to it. It took what seemed like forever because he was so ill and now injured. I held his arm at a steep curb. I held his arm, and he thanked me. At the coffee shop, we talked about poetry, and about prose poems. He said there were three kinds (I’m probably remembering it wrong): First, Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen type that involves story but alters story with powerful ironies and surprising imagery. Second, the Ashberyan or Hejinian type of prose poem that wanders segue after segue away from narrative, following a trail of how we say things, the accretion of meaning piling up or dissipating by leaps and bounds. Finally, Kafka. I should have pressed him more about Kafka, because I hadn’t read him other than Metamorphosis. I didn’t want to seem stupid. I suppose he was thinking about how our existential absurdities are profound if you dwell on them with enough attention and a willingness to be entertained by language and not knowing yet knowing in a new way. Somewhere in this last sentence is half of a good definition of poetry.

Of course, there are other kinds of prose poems. The ones I like are Lydia Davis’s Escher-like illusions/repetitions that are truly exceptional in their cyclical beauties. A mind considering itself, its imaginations and its limitations. And of course, James Tate’s and Russel Edson’s better prose poems (only about 1 in every 20, but they are really good. Actually, that’s a good ratio for any poet writing any type of poem). And Strand, himself, who, now that I’ve read a bit of Kafka—well, I get it. The prose poems of Almost Invisible are the ones I come back to, and Kafka’s dread of death and astonishment at the absurdities of life/death surely seem to be the driving force. Almost all books of prose poems I read, though, are horrible. Anybody thinks he can do it. Any ease in terms of how one might be making poetry should be a warning to poets. On average, prose poems are worse than most free verse because lines will do some work via the line break alone. But prose poems are not nearly as horrible as “spoken word,” which always require some kind of performance to hold the language up in the way of flimsy tomato cages.

Sean Singer can write the inventive and worthwhile prose poem. He has taught for numerous colleges in New York and also works as a freelance editor. Singer won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 2001. His long-awaited second book, Honey & Smoke, was published in 2015. He lives in New York and started driving for Uber and Lyft when they began replacing the regular taxis with more efficient and savvy contemporary technology. A good number of his poems in Today in the Taxi make mention of Kafka. You can imagine the existential angst that any taxi driver in New York might experience. Of course, angst doesn’t make a poem. Beauty does. How then to proceed? One of the things that a prose poem can do to generate interest is to do with the sentence what verse does with the line. You use that space of silence to some effect, letting the units rub against each other to create a warmth of meaning or even electricity that gets our attention. In the prose poem, the silence between the sentences can spark with the power of the turn from one sentence to the other. In “Antivenom”, Singer uses these silences in the second stanza to switch directions dramatically:

I was nervous. Some people live without contradiction. I remained calm though the situation was beyond the job description.

He also gets a complex rhyme in there: “contradiction / job description.” So it’s more than just the artistic use of the sentence. Good prose poems often rely on the lyric mode’s startling image (and repetitions/developments thereof) as opposed to flash fiction’s drama that moves through setting and time. In “Glands and Nerves,” the beautiful and haunting images of stanza three are written with lyrical alliteration and assonance. Notice how the short os give way to the ss and ls:

I thought of a trench at the bottom of the ocean, filling with darkness and impurity, what Kabbalists call “offsourcings.” Shells crack open like vessels, and loose sparks of light.

In a 1976 essay in Parnassus, Russell Edson takes a stab at coming to terms with the prose poem:

I hesitate to use the word ‘form’ when speaking of prose poems, because for all the interesting poets who have written them, the prose poem has yet to yield up a method. The writer coming to the prose poem has no rules to keep, and just as importantly, no rules to break. For in spite of all the poets who have written prose poems no aesthetic or compositional tradition has formed around the prose poem. I see this as one of its virtues.

If there is, indeed, a lack of codified form or composition to the prose poem, perhaps each writer of the prose poem has the opportunity or even needs to invent one.

Most of the poems in Singer’s book begin “Today in the taxi…” though a few say “Tonight” or “Yesterday” or “Last night”. The book is small, 65 pages long, broken into three equivalent sections, and no poem is more than a page long, maintaining a relative consistency of form. Recently Victoria Chang’s Obit tied her award-winning series of prose poems together in a similar manner, beginning most of the poems: “      died      ”, indicating that some person or thing died on a certain day. Chang’s poems primarily deal with the loss of her parents and the fallout from those losses. The slender columnar form of the newspaper obituary gives shape to her voice, her cry. That is one more thing that the prose poet might do to sustain a collection: to find a consistent formal vehicle that can allow for repetition and variation. In this way, the form is oddly similar to what Shakespeare or Donne might do with the sonnet. Of course, any contemporary form is less mathematical/abstract and more three-dimensional and materially specific than the Renaissance poets. Chang has the obit as form, and Singer has his taxi. The object, though, is to get beyond the form and be transported elsewhere.

Singer’s taxi is on the move through the boroughs of New York and farther. But while the setting might shift outside, the drama takes place within that concentrated space of the car where two or more strangers have their encounter, or in the interior of the driver’s thoughts. Each poem contains the tensions that exist between driver and rider, but also the world beyond informs the worlds within each of them. The world beyond is not just a traveler’s house on fire while traffic is stalled or the passing scenery of skyscrapers, storefronts, and pedestrians. The world beyond is the imagination of the driver-poet who brings his experience of life to bear on the moment: jazz, philosophy, personal memory, theology. Religion takes on a strange air here, as the god whom Singer addresses is strangely unknowable, feminine (a she/her), perhaps cruel, sometimes empathetic and even compassionate, personally unstable like the rest of us. The mysteries of the Kabbalah loom large for this speaker throughout. In the last two stanzas of “Burnt Plastic,” after we understand the “Wall Street type” has a house on fire, Singer amplifies the tension in plain, concise prose:

He kept saying: “Go this way!” or “Which way are you going?” He said to someone that there are firearms and ammunition in the house. Periodically he held back tears. It was a long 25 miles for me, and I suppose, longer for him.

We got there, and the house was burning. The Talmud says: Nature rules over all things except the terror it inspires.

I’ve read this book three times already, and it is rare I read a book more than once. I might read a few poems by any contemporary poet twice. The straightforward grammar and diction of the prose makes me think of the style of someone like Louise Glück, who is plainspoken, yet full of tone, a speaker examining her own attitudes and surroundings, assured, skeptical, sometimes wondering, sometimes full of wonder, but almost always driving at the individual experience of presenting to us a consistent voice. For example, in “Glands and Nerves”, a poem begins with a couple of annoying tourists, Fox News employees from Nashville, then moves through some deep existential meditations involving the Holocaust and an imagined trench at the bottom of the ocean. Singer finishes the poem with this sentence: “Driving taught me to accept people for who they are, but other times I wish for an asteroid crashing into the city from the cold drain of space.” That final image of utter destruction releases that bottled rage we had witnessed building and building within the confines of the car. We see it from an apocalyptic God’s-eye view.

One of the things I like most in Singer’s book is his technique of occasionally using phrases of nearly indecipherable semantic meaning. In the first poem of the book, “One-Tenth”, where the speaker says he doesn’t “believe in saints or omens, early winds or the pink luck of a sunset”. I have no idea what Singer means by “early”, but I feel like I should because I have a good sense of the rest of the catalogue. In “Compass”, what does “incarnadine muscle” smell like? I don’t know, but I love that Singer has made me imagine it. In “Tensions” I don’t know what he presents in “the black rose looking down on the mass of the earth”, but I believe it as it looms there like a god. It’s the surreal of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting or something out of Dalí’s imagination. In “Pink Gloves”, to say that the woman is “prehistoric” makes little sense to me, yet there is a profundity to this hyperbole.

It’s no more surreal, though, than Frost saying that “Nature’s first green is gold.” There is, after all, something simply Frostian about these poems. A deceptive simplicity, a resistance to common sense that takes place in common-sense, somewhat-ordinary scenes. Singer’s occasional surreal imagery is beyond (or below) Frost, but the sensibility of the common man is here. On the other hand, whereas Frost’s vision roamed around the countryside, here, obviously, we are inside the core of the city, being pumped toward that existential heart like a blood cell through the veins, the one living cell of Sean Singer’s taxi, pulsing, traveling, listening, longing to live and to be renewed.