Playhouse State, Stephen Danos (h-ngm-n books, 2012), Reviewed by Zachary Green
In my childhood, I’m happy I never met Stephen Danos. This thought might be the only time in reading his first chapbook, Playhouse State (h-ngm-n books, 2012), where you may feel this way. We enter this cagey launch from Danos, “pregnant with questions but no real need to have them resolved.” However, the whole trajectory from this point forward is searching for a very serious, albeit at times deranged, resolution to its title line: “playhouse state, a model home for my insomnia.”
There is a sense of displacement in these poems where no object has any loyalty to its subject, no parent with loyalty to their offspring. We are given moments like this in “Place No Likelier Home” with phrases like, “Gestalt by any other anonymous sweetener,” as well as, “I curl into a ball of nose bleeds as white as—cannot / talk directly into my hands, which are microphones. I feel in violation, of potential / ghosts, of their hangouts. No one hears me.”
Here might be the first gesture of many compounding thoughts around the notions of childhood and adulthood, as we gain from the continuous outcry, “ In this childhood.” However, throughout Danos ties together idiomatic threads with the pervasive psychoanalysis of what childhood and adulthood are. The speaker is bravely cognizant that the two are not dissimilar but planets in an unfortunate orbit, where nothing is actually communicated. The adults are light fixtures with dimmer switches in this theater of horrors, while the speaker carefully draws down the dial.
What we have to admire is that this is a poet careful of volume, aware of the incendiary and involuntary acts of adolescence –furthermore someone capable and confident enough to trudge back in that direction with a torn blanket in tow. Along the way we are graced with “fogbow” and “infinity mists,” or moments when, “A nasal capillary bursts, / a cabernet stream curves / around your inferior lip.” We are also given blockbuster hits in his poems like in the triplet of thriller staples like, “The Shout Needn’t You,” “Don’t Fall Asleep,” and “Be Careful at the Overlook.”
Pirouetting with the contemporary contagions of poetry, of which Danos does not do often, at times we get the occasional snack time, “Everything carries the courage of Capri Sun, of string cheese.” However, Danos is as much a master inside his own vessel of poetics, entirely his own. There is seldom any letting up, any release of tension, these poems are all tension and have maintained close witness to every whimper and wail that a childhood possesses. However, they do not shy away from the inevitable, the “bare-assed” adulthood “in front the mirror to better survey / my decay.” Or even a manhood, “For each mutineer / bested / I mark tally on the helm.”
What may be a manhood, Danos also leverages some of the power in this short suite of poems through gender swapping as to gain a several-angled salvo of entry ways into the speaker’s earlier years— whether they are the grotesqueries of boyhood, or the threat from fathers at trace moments of flirting with femininity, or any sensitivities rather than being normative. Playhouse State grounds this power in its language, in the lack of control that one can have over the sorcery of parental figures or their political punditry:
Childhoods and adulthoods
are interchangeable like hot air
avowals during a political
talk show—juxtaposed as a row
of tenement buildings, all falling
apart notwithstanding the decade
workers cut the ribbon—
that refuse listening to:
each other, reason. The sound
a dry throat makes
when it’s swallowing
snivels of regret.
For a chapbook, this is exhaustive and painfully mindful of craft but to get caught up in that alone would be to dismiss the content that we have all endured, whether bloody or clean. There is no handholding in the line to the rollercoaster.
The only disappointment of this chapbook will be if there is no sequel starring Matthew Lillard with Daniel Day Lewis as his father, or more importantly, the saber-toothed voice of Stephen Danos.
Bio of Reviewer: Zachary Green is the poetry editor of Ghost Proposal (www.ghostproposal.