CEM COKER Reviews
Way Too West by Julien Poirier
(Bootstrap Press, San Francisco, 2015)
Julien Poirier’s Way Too West came out from Bootstrap Press sometime last summer, but you’d hardly know it. I was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, where Poirier lives, and asked a couple of other poets if they’d come across the paperback, which originally appeared as a PDF on Filip Marinovich’s Wolfman Librarian blog. One of them was an acquaintance of Poirier’s and had heard about the book but didn’t have it; the other had heard of him but not of the book. I couldn’t find a copy in any bookstore and ended up buying it directly from Small Press Distribution at the warehouse.
I was friends with Poirier about fifteen years ago (he edited my chapbook on a fledgling Ugly Duckling Presse) and I’ve been following his writing more or less closely since I found a copy of his newspaper novel, Living! Go and Dream, displayed in a New York Times newspaper box in midtown Manhattan sometime during the W. Bush years. If the more conventionally packaged El Golpe Chileño (UDP 2010) came as a letdown after that street find, it still had its moments of outstanding poetry. One of the more appealing things about Poirier’s oeuvre is that all of his books feel thematically interconnected. There are always race horses and roller coasters plunging on metaphorical rails. The Santa Cruz beach boardwalk of the newspaper novel mutates into the Planta Nova beach boardwalk of Way Too West, and references to that fictional city can be found in Poirier’s other books, too. You get the feeling that each new book adds to an evolving self-enclosed world.
Starting with its cover, Way Too West invites its own obscurity; but at the same time the cover is one of the highlights of the book. It’s a wraparound photorealist painting by the Bay Area artist Jake Hout, of a dilapidated beachside scene, with nods to the action within. But the lack of a title or of any text at all on the spine makes the whole production look and feel half finished. In fact, wrapped entirely by the image of an old fence post, the spine is literally vanishing into the woodwork. On the front, fading into shadowy sand and printed too close to the trim, Poirier’s name barely shows up. The title itself falls out of register in the mind; it’s way too close to Ed Dorn’s Way More West. And yet the combined effect of this surface dissonance is to make you want to open the book.
Poirier has called Way Too West a “poem system,” and if the poem doesn’t really hold together as a system, it heaps some very deft accidents into the rifts. There is a narrative throughline here, about an old California family called the Yarrows, “the unluckiest family in the world,” which goes in and out of tune like a radio station as you head deeper into the book. Their misadventures have a sort of Wes Anderson-y feel to them, the brother falls in love with his blind adopted sister—and the poet barely avoids bogging the poem down with fussy descriptions of Yarrow eccentricity: the ramshackle Victorian house, the dotty dad, the moldering greenhouse, the off-season fireworks...
Fortunately, this whole raft of characterization is capsized by a shadow narrative concerning bunch of outcasts and renegade artists called the Goalies of Eldritch, who keep showing up in the so-called Western Jungle (which feels more like a state of mind than, say, a hobo jungle) and form “a ‘troupe’ of outsiders who aren’t actually aware of each other’s existence ... a playacting Guild of Freaks.” Way Too West opens with them—or with a reference to an unnamed leader (“On all the old roads she goes ahead”) and proceeds to checklist them as
dispensers of omens, jugglers,
white liar loners,
enthusiasts of cults they don’t belong to...
etc. There’s Glinka the Sailor, the Kyoto Showboat, and, later, characters show up with one foot in the Yarrow family history and another in the Goalies meta-narrative.
Poirier always writes clearly but still manages to confuse, since key events in Yarrow lore (marriages, broken bones) carry the same weight as trifles and seemingly random misdirection. So while all the action in the book takes place in California, it may shift out of nowhere to East Coast settings: A “Gloucester canal / in a soap bubble study” may float onto an open field of vanished California plant life; Sally Yarrow may suddenly become “the grand dame of Spreightstown” (Pennsylvania?) and the “Hectic Merrimack” may flood stanzas of down-to-the-grass-blade interior dialogues between Sally and her boyfriend, Jagadis Ravelstein—a recurrent character whom we learn very little about except that he rides a sparkly motorcycle and may double as a Goalie called the Cat’s Cradle Kid.
The further west you get into Way Too West, the more it starts to feel, well, more like a landscape for your mind to traipse through than like a book of poems. Or maybe even more like a cartoonish map that has been folded and crumpled, so that mountains abruptly saw into the ocean, and highways veer into your bedroom.
This unevenness bleeds into Poirier’s style. The book is divided into untitled sections, and each is a sort of set piece. The best parts absolutely hum at the highest frequency, as if the words are starting to feed back on each other and to sound themselves out in your eyes. Weirdness is always right around the corner—between the “Shrine of the spray plastic house set” and the “Era of the Sun- / beam Lamb / Chipper” there’s just enough time to get lost in the 10-page comic strip intermission and savor a few bull’s-eye stanzas:
Through the backlots of Paramount
through oases and tweaking fonts
of apocalypse by meteor,
gnawing his glorified Blunt
rides the law and his paramour
Other passages are stilted, particularly the description of the Yarrow family early in the book. Some things don’t come naturally to this poet, and he’s a poor bluffer. But I like how the book closes with songs and notated music, and I also like the strange company it keeps—Judy Collins, David Mamet, William F. Buckley Jr., and a Johnny Cash robot are just a few of the cameos—and also how it doesn’t remind me of any other book of poetry I’ve read lately. It may fall on its face once too often, but the good cuts of this disordered half-masterpiece will keep the tribe fed all winter.
Cem Çoker is the author of the chapbook Oily Bird Mash Marquee (Ugly Duckling Presse 2000). His poems have appeared in Dirigible, Lungfull! and New York Nights. A full-length collection of poems, Double Crossroads, is in the works. He has taught English at Marmara University in Istanbul and afterschool poetry classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.