James Arthur’s second collection, The Suicide’s Son (Signal Editions) marvels at humanity’s impermanence, our ephemeral nature. Arthur’s ear is finely tuned, his sly rhymes lay hidden, at times, very much like the artifacts that turn up in the emotional landscape of Son, new fatherhood, college memories, the hope in superheroes, the thrall of villains, old houses and their memories. Though the title might give the impression that Arthur journeys into the somber, sober reality of death, such as in the manner of Matt Rassmussen’s Black Aperture (LSU press), Arthur rather gives the reader a sideways look at death, winking at us, from behind his poems, fully aware of the artifice, and quick to remind the reader, not to take anything to seriously, including mortality.
Divided into three sections, Son opens with “Effigy” which places the reader in the position of acknowledging that when we burn out of anger we burn ourselves. “Everyone knows/who we are supposed to be/but we look like ourself not a scarecrow/dancing on air above the riot square...for us it is the finest most natural thing/to lean into the wind/and start burning.” Self-destruction is sweet, often addicting, and readers do not have to look far beyond Arthur’s book to find it sown across America. Arthur’s poem calls up cinematic imagery with the poem’s European villageness. It makes for a perfect set-up for “Frankenstein’s Monster,” which showcases Arthur’s wit and ear. Together, these two opening poems frame Son, showing the reader exactly what one will find inside, and in life. Humanity’s penchant for killing ourselves, and our dark humor in the face of it, and also the comfort of escapism, and its danger too.
In “Frankenstein’s Monster” Arthur’s snaky rhymespun form goes down easy as a shot, or afternoon tea, if that’s your pleasure. “I’ve got money, and a condo on the West Side./I smell like formaldehyde, my teeth are grimy,//my limbs mismatched, but I’m happy in this place/where I’m one more person with panache and an ugly face. I eat well. I can walk the bridge/ Hart Crane walked, or get drunk and not conceal it. I’m not Boris Karloff, lurching/around, a mute--I hate that guy;/I get laid.” In these few lines unspool the humor and informal rhythms of Arthur, refreshing, honest, and aware of itself. Instead of hammering the syllabics into regular meter, Arthur allows the poem to wander, like the speaker. Much of the poem is cut in 12 or 8 syllable beats, but there’s variation, and the poem’s form suits its function; the wandering unnamed monster still suffering years and years after fleeing the arctic which was supposed to be its grave. Perhaps the most remarkable line is when the monster muses, “Here people suffer without believing/that every stranger should have to feel it.” The line break urges the reader to think of faith-based traditions, however the poet yanks back on that leash, leading the reader to the idea that all of us suffer, yet we forget it, so wrapped up in ourselves, our ego. Yet there is also another sly jib hidden there, in the second line, one that suggests that Americans are not kind or friendly, “that every stranger should have to feel <suffering>.” Frankenstein’s monster is a speaker who can look us in the eyes and give it to us straight, for he’s been abandoned by his father, his creator, and sent into the world to suffer, and die, but yet survives, thrives, and sees all of our folly. It’s a grand choice for a collection that is in many ways about the failures of the past, the terror and marvel of fatherhood, and what it means to practice art as a lifestyle.
One of Son’s standout poems is “Drone” which not only invokes the banjo’s sound, but also the sound of a cicada, the duty of a bee, as well as the military kind of drone, one which is the poem’s exigency, that and the droning which comes from the “empty” White House. The poem’s tight stanzas and metrics hum and reinforces the kind of monotone sound associated with power.
Arthur’s eye and ear capture the whimsy and wonder of fatherhood, often by revisiting stories, books, or cultural references, Darth Vader, Captain America, Goodnight Moon, the encyclopedia, that reveal as much about the boy in the father, the speaker, as it does about the kid, “an eight toothed homunculus”. And these wonders, if you will, are spread throughout the collection, and harmonize with the theme of fleeting life which floats up in “Ode to an Encyclopedia” as missing stuff in a boarding house, an alcoholic father of a friend, and again and again throughout the collection, often in surprising places, such as the Ren fair.
In “A Local History” Arthur writes, ‘the Saxon barrow-makers...saw themselves as late arrivers as an after-folk/living on the graves of a greater folk/who’d gone before. Where is the horse, where is the rider,/some now nameless-Saxon wrote.” One of the key philosophical dilemmas of humankind, what to make of the world, our place in it, and how to reconcile all of it with what came before? This idea surfaces throughout Son, whether Arthur is poeming about planting trees, or bullying the poor kid made to dress up every day, or about buying a home in “Fixer-Upper” where history turns up even in the gutters.
In James Arthur’s The Suicide Son, history turns up everywhere, it’s inescapable. Arthur reminds us that we seek the past out, to wear it, re-live it, re-claim it, even if all we are re-claiming is destruction.
Stephen Scott Whitaker has a novel of weird fiction forthcoming from Montag Press. His poetry has been published in The Scores, Oxford Poetry, Grub Street, and others. His broadside is available from Broadsided Press.