Gold Wake Press, 2012
Reviewed by Pia Aliperti
A good punch line is inseparable from the material that comes before it. A rhythm must be established, a call and response, and the anticipation builds before we are finally struck by the groan, a flash of realization, the satisfaction of having paid attention all this time and still be astounded. Nick Courtright in his debut collection Punchline weaves the rhetoric of poetry, philosophy, and comedy around the same Maypole. From the perspective of the universe, how different are the endings from the beginnings? In “our tireless, circuitous blur,” how long “before we realize / we are all just snakes’ tails / in the mouths of snakes?” In a fractured joke, what’s the difference between the punch line and the set-up?
Courtright explores this timing in “Faith”; Egyptian workers are “honored” when they are sealed within the walls of the same pyramids they had sweated over. Courtright skips over their millennia of entombment in a few words (“And 5,000 years later”) before the laborers speak again:
Dear Museum, make it gentle, my brittle fingers bent,
hands clutched in pagan
beggar divine renunciate
As artifacts tenderly arranged by museum staff in poses of homage, the workers have a new life from the ones where they toiled in tribute to their pharaoh. Yet, are the beginning and ending of this story at cross purposes from each other? “What did they say to themselves,” Courtright wonders, “[…] when the air began to thin?”
I will be here
with the pharaoh, here
with the gods, only Ra
cannot see me now
Similarly, in “What I Have to Say to You,” Courtright questions the usefulness of the nodes past, present, and future when describing infinity. He depicts history as a place “where the future rests on an old desk // like an apple.” Not a shiny symbol of an apple but:
One apple who is just that
core, seeds, stem, meat, skin, in many ways the apple
causing the fall of us
from the ideal […].
Structurally, each section is named after the endings (“the punch lines”) of familiar quotations. Courtright derives the title “Invent the Universe,” for instance, from Carl Sagan’s adage: “If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first…” Yet, thematically, Punchline begins in the middle. The collection’s preface “The Despot” introduces a restless speaker, akin to Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who wanders “the streets down and nights through.” Glimpses of this speaker flicker throughout the collection. Prufrock famously asks, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” and Courtright’s speaker answers in “Connection”:
it would be like the loose thread on an old argyle sweater
which, pulled, sends
spiraling into non-existence.
Still, the despot roves and as a “proxy // for me, and for you and for you and for us.” Courtright gives his lines a wide berth. For a collection concerned with size and in considering everything from the insect (“the ant / could conquer this planet // if only she were larger) to the large abstractions (“Dogma,” “Memory,” “Phenomena,” “Fun with Agnosticism”), the poems feel almost breezy. The extra breaks between stanzas and lines encourage readers to “wander” between them, jot down notes, ask questions, fill the space with their own knowledge.
For the book’s division of information extends beyond just “the unknown” and the “known.” Courtright asks, what about what we think we know? “History could end / it could be replaced,” he writes in “Memory.” “It could be revised by pamphlets fallen // from the sky, or Adobe Photoshop.” What of epiphany? “What if wind is the substance and air is wind afflicted / by stillness,” Courtright considers in “Query.” What of the knowledge that humans aren’t even attuned to process? “Give in to this and you can be // just a star” whisper the constellations in “What We Know and What We Don’t” to the teen sky gazers beneath them. According to Courtright, the stars have been whispering this way “all along, // but only special radios can hear // like a whistle for calling dogs, calling them home.” Priorities may shift; values may alter: “The new survival of the fittest // will be the best swimmers, meaning especially webbed fingers and toes,” Courtright writes in “Consolation Prize,” and in “Freedom Evolves” he explores how quickly our elevated status can change:
You believe in free will
and then one day so does
one atom of the gum-covered underbelly
of a forty year old desk
By subverting the expected order of things, Courtright asks us to consider the “absurdity of living.” The absurdity of contemplating the cosmos as our ancestors contemplated it and all the while entrenched, as they were, in the “small” matters, the daily domestic trances. He seems to take special delight when age-old musings brush up against the contemporary world in lines like “how many stars can you count / lying on your back // or on the rooftop of a temple or Target?” from “American Conundrum.” Or consider this trajectory from “The Despot”: “humans // use sand to make glass,” to make computer chips, to “seek the face of God // and find it // on the internet.” An absurdity, also, in how open these questions can be. “Maybe / the face of God was always there, in the sand itself.” The “despot of your own imagination” may go anywhere, and yet “to choose one way / is not to choose another, / thus leaving stones unturned, routes unexplored…”
In the city, left and right and up and down are more than ideas,
and the walls,
I would call them paper thin but this was thinner:
the apse of consciousness
The punch line to Punchline insinuates itself gradually. Its questions yield no flashes of comprehension, just the recurring pleasure of the asking without hope of an answer.