In Between Poetry & Fiction: Aaron Poochigan’s Mr. Either/Or by Zeke Greenwald

Aaron Poochigian, it is said, is the holder of many degrees, including one of those MFAs in Poetry and a Classics PhD. That being said, the genre of his debut employs the aforementioned acquirements in that it’s a verse novel combining elements of noir and mythology–you know, to put all that education and knowledge to good use. Poochigian is a very nice man, he can curse quite a lot and chant Homer very nicely. The novel, moreover, is in lines of more or less ten syllables. When the modish world of poetry hears lines of tens repeated over and over again, they point to it and call it stuffiness. Poochigian seems to like these stuffy formal things (rightly so!), but he also seems to take precautions to not seem too stuffy. For instance, he uses all of the American slang, all of it. But this happens to be managed in a very interesting way. In a way that laughs in scorn, as if to say, I am not stuffy: Or, what if I am? I can curse while I quote Homer!

Mr. Either/Or is about an FBI agent, and it covers two of his cases. The first is an ancient Chinese mystery chest; the second is about leftover wreckage from Roswell, New Mexico. And, of course, the agent falls in love… with a Met Museum curator. There are also many terribly interesting things that are said, while the enormous body count begins to putrefy and many adventurous, line-broken scenes count more bodies. Poochigian deserves our praise for his poetry, but the plot, well, this will receive our indulgence. Let us touch on this book’s interest in what way it is interesting.

There is one Poochigian lyric, a very nice poem by him called, “Divertimento,” and it is very indicative of his style, the one even present in Mr. Either/Or. It is a praise of Ohio, USA, and contains several exciting features like the word “Holsteins,” and the phrase, “yawner of a Bronze-age Now,” but the line rhyming to this is quite strange. It says, “but in this yawner of a Bronze-age Now, among the ruminants, what matters most is just, like, freaking wow––” Poochigian devoted feet, precious poetic feet, to “just like freaking wow.” Lines like this are all over Mr. Either/Or. Take for instance this line from the fifth part. It starts with a nice image and then ends with a similar American style cuss-out. The FBI agent is coming out of a parking garage:

“Now your legs are climbing

the corkscrew toward a pigeon-squalid dawn.

There’s vapor rising from the grates, and you

are mumbling to Manhattan, ‘What the fuck

just happened? What the hell is going on?’”

And wow! Perfectly iambic fucks and hells! It is like Poochigian is obsessed with creating an American dialect, a folksy way that makes all of its peculiar words witty and surprising to us, be we even users of these oddities ourselves. Yet this American manner is indicative of no American: Poochigian’s use is so all-encompassing, it leaves out no word even if it has ceased being cool (yes, we see, “popo,” in Mr. Either/Or). It is encyclopedic: so it is indicative of no American save that one who sits with all his dictionaries pondering the possibilities for new words, who then starts making a catalogue. Even now, with all the context of a living current American person, it is still puzzling to see in a poem, “heart” as a verb, or “like” used like a Valley-girl pause to create a post-position simile, like when, in the book, he writes: “The sunlight, like, could pass for cobalt blue.” Moreover, Poochigian forces all the readers to accept that a flashlight is always a Coleman or a Maglight, yet not because he is American and America is consumerist. He manages those associations in the way that dictionary-pourers like Poochigian must know that Hymettus just means honey, and that purple-dye is Tyre.

This book, to remind you is an action-thriller, and it is a fun thing to read, no doubt. And perhaps from time to time for certain great poets, plots are only pretenses and illusions to allow the less metaphysical-designing mind to at least present its more local visions of beauty. But unlike Byron or Dickens, Poochigian never lets the poetry get too much more important than the plot that is an excuse for a plot. So even though each offending cliché is often, as it were, combatted with originality, you never get so many originalities deep without a cliché. And as hinted above, he doesn’t use these little clichés or originalities to create a greater narrative structure.

There is really poetry, though, in this book. Do not doubt it. When the spy meets his girlfriend again, for instance: “Desperate to ventilate the moral stink/ her flared proboscis beacons you exude,/ you lay the whole mess out––” Or in describing just where alien militants are positioned: “Deep in the aftershock of gas and char/ where, eons back, ringed systems coalesced,/ some trillion parsecs from the mid-grade star/ we can’t stop saying arcs from east to west,/ strange soldiers wait in denser air than ours.” And after waking up from a car crash, the very beautiful lines: “Some further vague time studying the way/ a spider crack has wriggled from the dash/ and loopty-looped the forehead your concussion/ cast in glass…”

In Poochigian’s work there is poetry, true poetry. This should put all of those poetaster-theoreticians to shame. And despite the clichés of the plot, remember that the description of something, something concrete, beautiful, beautifully written, just one second of a real experience can cast out all of that phony and underly specific kind of abstract work that is popular today.  ––Zeke Greenwald

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