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Balloon Pop Outlaw Black by Patricia Lockwood

Octopus Books, 2012
Review by Carleen Tibbetts

“A cartoon character works this / way: it is written so many times, with minor variations, that it appears to walk, to cast a / shadow …” (from “When We Move Away from Here, You’ll See a Clean Square of Paper Where His Picture Hung”)

What does it mean to exist as a cartoon, a template, to spring forth from another’s imagination? In her first full-length collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, Patricia Lockwood manages to soften Popeye The Sailor Man’s brutish machismo and misogyny with whimsy and finesse.  Lockwood’s Popeye trope is so expertly and playfully crafted, it’s as if she’s picked up magical realism where Italo Calvino left off.  Her characters have very real and very human hang-ups, yet exist where bodies are barrels of gunpowder, whales are lonely, and chandeliers hang mid-sky.

Lockwood’s collection is divided into four sections with a total of sixteen poems, three of which are long-form prose poems.  She opens with a fifteen-page deconstruction of Popeye, in which Popeye the abrasive pipe-mouthed stutterer becomes a “shadow,” a “ghost” inked in black “because something was extinguished there.”  Popeye lives “all in the alphabet” or “nowhere at all.”  Lockwood gives Popeye a narrative, yet also makes him a shadow, a place, a blip on the radar of our psyches.  Her simulacra of Popeye is tragic and pathetic. He exists on the periphery. He is marginalized both literally and figuratively. His origins are unknown. He is the void we are continuously falling into and out of.

In “The Cartoon’s Mother Builds a House in Hammerspace,” Lockwood gives us eighteen pages of gorgeous language, a world in which a mother lives in the black cloth sky of her son’s coat pocket, a world “as lidded as a lily pond.” Although it is unclear if this cartoon is supposed to be Popeye, this “hammerspace” is an other-worldly dimension in which the mother’s “idea of hair” becomes a portal, a living space for caged birds, a place in which her insides bleed into the house she is constructing, rendering her almost indecipherable from her creation.
At nineteen pages, “The Quickening,” the third long poem in the collection, explores a Pinocchio-esque scenario of a boy living in a whale’s belly.  Lockwood continues to master magical realism as she writes of her whale, “The horizon is streaked with cirrus fat and sunset colors.  Above, night is falling, and hundreds of harpoons went home in her.  The points leap out of her dome, and hang stars of perfect sharpness all over the firmament of the whale.”  The whale and the boy engage in games, read to one another, and hold deep, metaphysical conversations.  Time passes yet is not clearly marked. They are connected to, yet sequestered from one another. Again, the void. Again, the abyss.

There is no question that Lockwood’s poems are tight with refreshingly strange and perfect language.  Although many of the shorter poems do not specifically reference cartoons or even Popeye, there is a child-like sense of amazement and creation in almost every piece.  Still, I wonder how the book would function if it consisted solely of the long prose poems and left out several of the shorter pieces such as “The Salesmen Open Their Trenchcoats, All Filled With Possible Names for the Watch,” which stray from her animated motif.

Lockwood posits the following question halfway through her collection: “Is the mother of a cartoon always a cartoon, and is the world a cartoon lives in always a cartoon?” Indeed, the poet is the mother of her own cartoon, her own Popeye, as she poems from within her own hammerspace.  Lockwood is the animator and architect who draws and drafts Popeye into being.  She doodles him into existence, and leaves it up to the reader to render him finished or not.

In a meta moment in the opening poem, Lockwood interacts with her Popeye/popeye creation as she orders her manuscript and he climbs into each page.  He asks her, “Why did you leave the book open? Anyone could have walked in.”  I believe that Lockwood’s readers will not regret walking into this book from the moment they flip past the cover in which a horde of four-legged Popeyes march onward, naked, shadows waiting to be broken open, delineated, sketched, inked into, and erased from our collective consciousness.  

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