Turning Home: A Review of Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or books

/ /

Aaron Poochigian is, poetry-wise, a jack-of-all-trades. He is a keen translator whose Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, is perfectly repulsive. He is skilled at turning out lean, smart shorter poems, as in the collection American Divine. Beyond all that, he’s proven that he can pen witty, gripping, action-and-adventure novels-in-verse—and not just once, but twice.

Mr. Either/Or: All the Rage (2023, Etruscan Books) is the sequel to Poochigian’s brilliant Mr. Either/Or (2017). Writing one of these books would be an accomplishment; writing two is a bit of throwing down the gauntlet, for there is nothing conventional about Mr. Either/Or, either the character or the novels. Professional poets will be as puzzled as video-gamers, but both groups ought to read these books (which is not something I can say about the vast majority of poetry books published today) and, if they can let themselves, will probably enjoy them.

Mr. Either/Or is Indiana-Jones-meets-Gilgamesh; All the Rage is Beowulf joining the CIA. The hero (identified as “you” in a provocative use of the second person, but later revealed to be “Zach”) is an everyman—a slacker college student who enjoys hamburgers and skipping class—except that he’s a super-secret agent defending the oblivious masses from baddies of all stripes. He’s not just “in the FBI”: over and over, Zach becomes the Last Man Standing between the future of humanity and some freakish threat, whether it’s aliens from an ancient star or our own slavish love of chaos. Along the way, he falls in with a trim, trigger-happy museum curator and grapples with his own demons: the specters of love, commitment, and settling down.

It doesn’t feel quite right to read a Mr. Either/Or novel alone in a lamplit room after work. These verse novels are tales, begging to be told—out loud, with skill—to an audience hungry for thrills, hungry for a hero(ine! we have both here), for quests and courage and the beating-back of the darkness that lives in the shadows behind our blue-lit screens. These are adventure stories—fun, wild, imaginative, exciting—that pit humanity against its fiercest enemies (which include, incidentally, humanity itself).

It comes across as an afterthought that these poems tackle some of the most aggravating questions of our time. Though Poochigian manages to slip in some sweeping evaluations of contemporary society and of human nature, it’s under the radar, or maybe more accurately, over it, playing around on a macro level, reverberating through the atmosphere. The courage it takes to fall in love and raise a family; the heroism of staying open to human connection in a fragmenting society; these things are in the air Mr. Either/Or breathes, just as the divine virtue of hospitality shapes Odysseus’ world and the Spear-Danes of Beowulf cannot imagine a world without the wergild. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the simply wonderful language. Poochigian is a rhyme-hunter, the Geralt of contemporary English’s torpid Rivia. Where there be aural monsters, he’ll unearth them. See the dazzling couplet “schadenfreude in a black Van Dyke. / Not hard to figure what the jerk was like,” which another poet might be tempted to make the capstone of a poem, is just a throwaway description of a guy’s portrait.

The cheeky commentary of lines like, “You are the man, but not quite everything / that happens in the world belongs to you. / Right now, in fact, outside your point…” lets Poochigian to introduce his heroine (“a fussy art historian named Li-ling / Li-ling Levine”) as a clear counterpoint to Zach’s (youthful male) self-centered obliviousness. That introduction is key to both books, for this is, at the bottom, a love story. It is the tale of two people brought together by fate (quite literally, in their case) who, despite their anxieties and fears, choose to love each other, and through that choice they discover who they really are. Li-ling is, of course, much more than a fussy art historian, just as Zach turns out to be much more than a scrawny failure. She is a wizard-warrior, bringing deep wisdom and canny battle tactics to the quests, just as he matures from a battle-minded secret agent to a man capable of care and commitment.

These novels-in-verse would likely make much more sense to readers of a different age, when “poetry” was less chummy with pretentiousness and when “verse” was a buoyancy springing to life from the mouth of a troubadour or scop. “Poetry” today generally refers to short lyric verses, carefully composed and presented in a delicate little volume with an artful cover. These little verses live quietly on the page, and may only be read aloud a handful of times, mostly by the author. This isn’t an attack on contemporary lyrics. I write these poems myself; so does Poochigian. But for most of human history, these slight little lyrics were only one part—and the smaller part—of the bulk of Poetry.

That is why these odd, bombastic novels-in-verse are significant. They are a tow-rope thrown from the great vessel Verse to contemporary English, unmoored from many of the traditions that built it. At one point, Li-ling askes a prophet recently saved from his own visions:

…………..“What are you going to do— you know—out there?”, he answers with a shrug, then says, “what every person does who lives without a calling and without a goal: breathe without knowing what I’m breathing for.”

With that, he walks out through your riddled door…

This is a description of the modern condition, not just for humans but for language itself. We’re all walking through that “riddled door” with no idea what is on the other side.

To the technical details: Each novel-in-verse showcases two forms: the heroic line of English poetry (often in rhyming couplets) and the alliterative line of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Heroic lines, obviously, continue to be penned, though not in as great a quantity as perhaps they ought to be, but the finely grained potential of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse is pretty badly neglected in contemporary poetry (Richard Wilbur’s “Junk” is one of just a few examples of effective contemporary alliterative verse), so I was delighted to see Poochigian playing with this form.

As in all his verse, Poochigian doesn’t merely use the form as a calling-card to showcase his writing as Poetry (capital P). Instead, he uses form the way it is supposed to be used: as a generator, a dynamo (you’ll notice my modern metaphors here) that makes power by pitting two structures—one moving, one fixed—against each other. A car engine pits moving pistons against a fixed cylinder; a microchip pits a fixed circuit against moving transistors. Poetry pits fluid syntax (meaning) against fixed form (structure); as in other technologies, if the fixed element is stifling the moving element, the thing doesn’t work. If the cylinder jams the pistons, the car engine is broken. If the form crushes the poem, something is off.

Formal poetry “works” when the tension between the syntax—the sentence, the sense of the words—and the form creates energy, that friction that makes a formal poem hot, electric.

Here’s what I mean. In All the Rage, while staring down an apocalyptic hurricane moving on New York, Zach learns that Li-ling, his “would-be wife,” may be pregnant.

You want to go to her; you know you should but just can’t move to do it. ……………………………………………If you were a better man, this wouldn’t be an issue. You would duly climb in next to her, embrace her waist, and pray for fatherhood. As it is, diffident, you need some distance to ponder what might be a wee existence down in there, in her little Possum pouch.

The iambic meter gives these lines a strong emotional pull (who hasn’t felt, right alongside a rapidly escalating heart rate, “if I were a better man (or woman), this wouldn’t be an issue”?) The rhyme of distance and existence perfectly encapsulates Zach’s anguish; he feels himself pulled away from what really matters, what really makes life worth living, because of his very nature.

Poochigian pits his two forms—iambic pentameter and alliterative verse—against each other, using the friction between them to create shifts in mood, much as a film director switches camera techniques in different scenes. The heroic lines move the plot, describe characters, give background, and create space for the few, brief, pithy reflections on the state of the contemporary world and that great puzzle, Human Nature. The fight scenes (of which there are plenty) play out in spurts of alliterative verse. This is a good choice, giving us the poetry version of the hand-held camera shot in action and horror films: jerky, unstable, fractured and disorienting. Poochigian even chooses to hard-tab each half-line, adding a visual instability to the fight scenes as the alliterative lines crack across the page. See here, where a crew of aliens break down a door to a Manhattan apartment (a pretty normal situation in the zany world of Mr. Either/Or):

The hinged half of it ………………………………hits the wall; the rest has ruptured …………………………………………round the dead bolt and tumbled toward you. …………………………………………Twin male models leap the woodpile, ………………………………one wielding The Metal Thief ………………………………3000. Your Glock gets up ………………………………and goes again…

This is, believe it or not, pretty much formally correct Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, the kind of thing J.R.R. Tolkien enjoyed working in and Seamus Heaney famously managed to retain in his translation of Beowulf. It has the generous caesura between two half-lines bridged by a repeated sound (as in “Your Glock gets up / and goes again…” or in the “leap the woodpile / one wielding”). But someone reading it aloud will not necessarily notice the careful formalism of it; it’s rollicking, even jolly, and highly readable. Poochigian has accomplished something very unusual: he’s written contemporary formal verse capable of getting out of its own way.

Poochigian has chosen a hard road, though. Whereas verse, powered by meters, alliteration, and rhyme, used to be able to command our attention, stir our hearts, thrill our nerves, Poochigian is competing against television now. Coming as it does into a world inured against climax by the dopamine shots churned out by Marvel films, one wonders how Zach’s harrowing tales—in verse!—can hope to compete. How will an audience wearied by endlessly escalating CGI catastrophes (not just our world, but all worlds under threat!) ever be convinced to read a long poem?

Probably they won’t. But they should, because in a world increasingly dogged by disaster, Poochigian is offering us a lifeline.

Disaster fatigue is a real thing; after a series of catastrophic events, people just go numb. This is true in art, too; after the bombast of mid-2010s superhero films, people now describe the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “exhausting” and “relentless,” not to mention boring.  The crises we face—either in our own lives, vicariously through social media, or on the silver screen—have billowed out absolutely beyond scale. World destruction isn’t even enough; now every world is threatened, even every possible world. What kind of spiritual or moral—or even humane—posture is an average person to take to all this?

That’s what Poochigian’s verse novels are about: what normal people should do to get through the day. That’s what the best adventure tales have always been about. Odysseus is trying to get home from the longest commute in history. Beowulf is trying to help his buddy clean up for a party. Arjuna is trying to navigate some rough family dynamics. Gilgamesh—well, Gilgamesh just needs a friend. These problems, of course, become epic. The gods get involved. Monsters are spawned and defeated. But the central problems remain human-scaled: love, family, children (or lack thereof), home.

Those are the central problems of the Mr. Either/Or books too. After all the chaos and carnage, the weird and wild baddies, the colonies of sewer cultists and seven-layered prophecies of doom, our problems are, ultimately, the same ones we humans have faced since we started telling tales.

The word “verse” simply means “turn.” It’s from a Latin word that meant “furrowing” or “turning up the soil,” and it retains that meaning all the way up through its many forms. “Universe” means “one-turned,” or “turn-into-one,” and “multiverse” is “many-turned,” dislocation, a scattering outwards, a dissipation. Poochigian, by giving us a novel-in-verse, is showing us where to turn in the midst of chaos. I’ll let him summarize it, in this section from All the Rage where Zach returns to Li-ling’s flat after agonizing about the possible pregnancy and finds a villainess (“the embodiment of Doom”) threatening Li-ling (called the Doc here):

…………………………………………The shock is just too much for you. You drop your piece and tell the hag, ………………………………“Here I am, now release my girlfriend—that’s the deal.” ……………………………………………………And then the Doc starts crying: ……………………“Zach, I really need to live. The test I took today was positive!”

That’s it; that’s the whole game. Sure, the world is under siege from madness and the very multiverse may be collapsing around us, but (as poets have always known) for every one of us, it ultimately comes down to this moment, to one very special life, one lover, one couple, one family. That’s the final turn: the turn home, to that most human-scaled thing called family. In the end, that’s why anything matters at all.