Eric Greinke and Alison Stone
Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
Masterplan is a book to read at this moment, a collaboration that addresses the 24/7 news cycle, rampant consumerism, and pop culture. Some of the poems hit as hard and as fast as a two-minute punk song, while others are meditative and lyrical, quiet celebrations of the natural world. The book, written over three years, has its finger on the zeitgeist, with subjects ranging from mass shootings, to Middle East conflicts, to deceased rock stars.
Greinke and Stone worked on the book between 2014-2017 and wrote an equal number of lines in each poem, which creates unexpected and surprising shifts in a majority of the pieces, especially through the juxtaposition of images. The opening poem “Emergency” questions the way that we respond to tragedies, and some of the turns it takes and images it employs are as jolting as the sound of an ambulance rushing down the street. The first stanza reads,
A siren blares down the highway,
hysterically red as raw meat.
I imagine the worst disasters,
twisted bodies in crumbled cars,
stray bullets near a playground,
families trapped and screaming
or their house on fire.
Next I think of real people,
then I hope it isn’t them.
In a culture rife with bleeding headlines, it is no surprise that the non-specific speaker imagines the worst as soon as the ambulance is heard. The rest of the poem, though, questions who we assign grief to. The speaker even admits in the last two lines of the first stanza, “Next I think of real people, / then I hope it isn’t them.” This idea continues in the next stanza when the speaker admits, “Sure, every victim is somebody’s / something, but horror happening / to stranger is bearable, not / even as real as small annoyances / like running out of potato chips / during your annual Superbowl Party.” Considering the number of mass shootings over the last several years, “Emergency” feels especially relevant right now. The poem asks at what point do we become numb to violence and tragedy. Yet, the poem concludes with the desire to be human and to really feel something.
Though we go through
the motions skillfully, and
even the siren’s volume
is less than the scream of greed,
we wish for the silent strength
to somehow be more than our
natures, to match the siren’s wail
with our authentic grief, to stand
alive and open in the red-tinged light.
“Emergency” is one of several poems that is a critique of broader American culture. “Substitution,” a short, snarky poem, criticizes how fast and how easily we consume music now, asking, “Why pay / when you can get it for free? Why / shell out a hundred bucks / for some fame-bloated rocker / when every park has / a bandstand, and there are / herds of wannabees happy / to give it away? We drink / weak skim milk / and call it cream, / watch reruns when we dream.” Like “Emergency,” which concludes with the desire to feel something authentic, “Substitution” searches for a feeling that is real, for music that may not be so easily accessible on iTunes. Though the poem never answers what that music would sound like, the poem does raise questions about what passes for art nowadays and uses the metaphor of milk and cream to do so.
Other poems blend the natural world with images of day-to-day American life and consumerism. Like “Emergency,” these poems contain some brilliant movements. Take “The Chain,” for instance, quoted below in its entirety:
Inside the pavilion, coyotes eat
the remains of another birthday
celebration: chicken bones, chocolate cake,
grease-soaked napkins printed
with balloons. Their devouring
another sort of ritual – hunger
immediate as death at the front door.
Vultures wade through roadkill
like happy diners at a cheap buffet.
For now the balance holds –
each group satisfied, conflict
limited to brief skirmishes
at the garage can or
furtive movements glanced
from a safe distance.
The birthday child dreams
of clowns, smiles wide
as the coyotes’ toothy
grin. The sun smiles
overhead, a festive mirage,
while the vultures fly off to
sustenance and celebrations
repeating like the circles vultures’
wings slice through the blue.
Here, Greinke and Stone draw a comparison between humans and animals. The hunger among the humans, coyotes, and vultures is similar, and even the child’s grin is compared to a coyote’s. While a balance may hold between the humans and the animals, is their hunger that different? They all consume until nothing is left and it’s time to move on to the next party.
It should be noted that Masterplan is not just filled with narratives that offer a grim view on our present moment and the way our culture eats itself. The middle section contains a series of questions on far-ranging topics, including everything from animals to angels to musicians. Some of these poems are reflective, while others are witty and funny, especially “Heavy Metal Mysteries,” which asks and answers, “Why did Metallica perform with Lady Gaga? / They were hungry and hoped she’d wear a meat dress,” and “Why was Metallica inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? / To keep Black Sabbath company.”
There are a few exquisite celebrations of nature spaced throughout the book, too. In “After the Freeze,” the poets write, “Crocuses poking up beside / six foot snow mounds / seem like old friends / who call after years of / cold shouldering, anger now / forgotten as the easy banter / resumes like buds / bursting from old branches / unclenching like fists.” While Greinke and Stone often address the political or larger pop culture issues throughout Masterplan, they also give careful attention to everyday natural images, like crocuses sprouting after the thaw, or in the case of the book’s concluding poem, “Final Heat,” stars that “glow here / and now, light years away / from an unknown tomorrow.”
As a collaboration, Masterplan works well. That Greinke and Stone wrote an equal number of lines in each poem leads to some nice surprises, including an ungendered speaker and a multifaceted voice that ranges from the deeply ironic to the philosophical. While some poems may bemoan our hyper-consumerist culture, others remind us to be grateful for the natural beauty around us, as hard as that may be in this noisy world.