Reviewer: Erica Goss
In Misadventure, Ace Boggess writes about prison, old horror movies, and the absurdities of modern life. These poems create a powerful and moving narrative, following one man’s all-too-human failings as he navigates a baffling and often darkly humorous world. In language full of deft turns and surprises, Boggess tells us about small pleasures and sharp detours.
The first poem in the book, “Please Press One for Condolences,” exemplifies virtual communication’s tragic absurdities:
How do I open
the encrypted file
of our relationship?
The lines “We weren’t close— / I mean we were, / but no.” illustrate the free-floating ambiguity that accompanies so much of current discourse; i.e., having “friends” we never meet, except online, or engaging in the bloodless exchange of texts and emails. “Modern life / can be too gruesome / for the weak,” Boggess writes later in the poem, those gruesome parts squeezed and flattened into the screens through which we receive our daily connections.
In “Ghost Club,” Boggess points out that “Somewhere there’s a word for the spirit of a dead place … / in between apparition & déjà vu.” The dead place in the poem is a nightclub that feels out of sync; if déjà vu is a feeling of familiarity when arriving at a place where one has never been, then the speaker in “Ghost Club” searches for the word that describes a sort of reverse déjà vu. As he explains it, “There’s no word in English for loss without losing,” or the discovery that a once familiar place now seems strange and even hostile.
Boggess served a five-year prison sentence, a fact he alludes to in “Oatmeal” and “I Said Goodbye to My Old Pair of Shoes.” In “Oatmeal,” the cereal’s least appealing characteristics get an uncomfortably close look. It’s “grueling,” “lumpy” “glop,” which is why, according to the poem, it doesn’t make “an attractive scene stealer.” In this poem, oatmeal is both a disagreeable form of nourishment and a reminder of a painful time. Boggess writes later in the poem, “I took you in / with regularity. I knew steel shackles & / you, pat-downs & you.”
In “I Said Goodbye to My Old Pair of Shoes,” the shoes are “Prison-white: last reminders of a past / no man should remember or forget.” The lines “Their steps measured miles / of barely moving, soles worn from pacing” illustrate the irony of wearing shoes meant for walking while unable to go further than the dimensions of a prison cell. And yet, before discarding these “cracked, broken” reminders of a grim time in his life, he hesitates: “Sometimes it’s hard to let go of hurt.”
“Motion Picture,” an abecedarian, introduces a section of poems named after provocatively and sometimes hilariously titled films, specifically those in the horror and sci-fi genres of bygone times. These include Wild Women of Wongo, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and Cat-Women of the Moon, among others. Some of the better-known movies are The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Futureworld, and Night of the Living Dead. As the speaker in “Motion Picture” observes, “I / Swear, it’s better as scenes get faster & tough-goings tougher.”
The poem “House of Usher” uses the film of the same name, based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, to debate the question of nature vs. nurture. The speaker and his rehab counselor come to different conclusions about what causes addiction: genes or social constructs. Of course, they are both correct: that is “a paradox that makes you / want to burn the whole place down & / then start over.” Boggess points out that Poe was “a junkie” and that, in the movie, “Vincent Price / plays his role as if drunk on suffering.”
The first line of “Night of the Living Dead,” “I’ve always thought graveyards the best place to begin,” recalls the first scene in the film: brother and sister Johnny and Barbara laying a wreath on their father’s grave just before a flesh-eating zombie attacks. In Boggess’s poem, however, a graveyard is place to play and explore:
We’d tramp through the brittle, shushing cover,
not caring who we stepped on, who we might awaken
from a funny dream.
After he sees the film, however, his opinion changes: “that mocking chant, They’re coming to get you, / Barbara—taunt the most horrifying part of the film. The last line of the poem comments on the end of the film: “I know what’s left of the innocent world is lost.”
“Damnation Alley” and “Star Wars” are based on the films of the same name, both released in 1977. Damnation Alley, a futuristic road-trip movie starring George Peppard, was supposed to be a big hit for Twentieth Century Fox, but it flopped at the box office. No one had high hopes for Star Wars, on the other hand, but it was an unexpected, runaway success, exceeding its makers’ wildest dreams.
Boggess turns Damnation Alley into a rollicking villanelle, while Star Wars results in a poignant reflection on a five-year-old’s unexpected pleasure as he experienced
Spaceships, music, laser blasts: electric whiskey
drowned young eyes, left me drunk on fascination,
staggering home across the interstellar bridge.
In “Damnation Alley,”
George Peppard’s one straight-backed S.O.B.
He runs the wasteland U.S. west to east
On a trip through hell to get to Albany.
The peculiar creepiness of our tech-saturated time comes full circle in the book’s last poem, “Amazon.com Recommended My Book to Me.” The poem begins with “an e-mail offering you might also like / a name I knew…// was this success? some cruel joke?” (I remember feeling a similar sense of disassociation, when, years ago, Facebook suggested that I become “friends” with my son.) “Amazon.com Recommended” extends the observation from “Please Press One for Condolences” about modern life being too gruesome for the weak. The lines “the ideal reader for me is me / my temperament well-suited for my words” reveal the anxiety of writers, poets in particular. We sense, too often correctly, that no one reads our work. It’s like Googling oneself, an activity that leads to a whole new level of worry and distraction.
Misadventure is a book about real life and its messy, absurd, and weirdly comical moments. Ace Boggess is a master at creating poems that expose the truth about relationships, connections both missed and realized, and our ongoing struggle for real communication in an increasingly virtual world.