Never Cry Woof
by Shafer Hall
No Tell Books, 2007
It’s time, folks. So saddle up. Change has finally come to America . . . and its name is Shafer Hall. This poet-cowboy has ridden into town with his six-shooter grace to shake up the elite I-know-poetry establishment. To know what you’re getting into, look no further than the cover of this tumbleweed-meets-Merlot gritty serenade, this transformative debut called Never Cry Woof. There in caricature you’ll hear a softer egalitarian echo of post-Bush middle America, a shirtless, overweight cowboy wearing a heart-patterned bikini, sipping red wine as he lounges beside a cigar-smoking George Bush senior. This strange bedfellows campfire scene anticipates the flickering filmstrip of black-and-white moods and softly threatening situations to come. Did I mention a good deal of Jack and Coke is required drinking on this ride?
Hall evokes the magic-wielding colloquial endearment of a Jack Spicer, hearing music sharply in language as Spicer did, the outsider persona howling in tandem. Here, our rogue guide’s sensitive Dionysian swagger is deadened by the “cold trucks and curves” of rural wasteland, lulled by dim harbor lights, made ecstatic by the arcane. We’re awkwardly at peace in these short poems, as if listening to a hypnosis tape narrator wonder aloud whether he should eat some poisonous oleander leaves. Hall’s poetry stitches together dust bowl ennui and big city nerves, a late night world populated by people we need not know in order to really know them: Aunt Cindy, four-year-old Nick, T-Bone’s Old Lady, and a Polish girl named Miriam “trying to make heads or tails of evolution.” Try to match that, creationist Wasilla-girl.
Hall’s poems are “demon rubs” offering no full-bodied conclusions, just glancing accounts from witnesses to misdemeanor crimes. “See for yourself,” he writes, where “in the nickel light / a slender woman dances / and mispronounces your name.” His commentary is a fist on the piano keys, the deflated “Aha” you feel when the evening “outdresses” you. Rather than explain, he points to a brick thrown through his uncle’s rotting fence. Half-grinning statements wink at your expectations for more, such as “I had forgotten the beauty of banana.”
The collection carries the insular and sad-clown soundtrack that a retired sidekick might choose for his biopic as he clings to the faint whiff of romanticism and last-minute rescue. It’s as if Sancho Panza and Shafer Hall are strolling hand-in-hand through a junkyard of American dreams . . . tinged with chrome-blind hope. There’s the inscrutable school bus incident involving a catfish and feminine hygiene product, the yelling at a wastebasket on a subway platform (“Mister!”), the“Falling out / Of Tony Randall’s eyes,” and an entourage of other regressive self-xeroxing incursions that would accompany your typical alien abduction hangover. There are the resurgent smells that make your lungs “hard as coconuts” and require “the strength of one thousand turkeys / on a pre-colonial Manhattan Island” to endure.
When you travel with Shafer, you are Alice, but no doubt on a first-name basis, joining an amiable posse with a taste for the humorously grotesque. The mission is to seek out a little comfortable paranoia. Your guide’s primary goal is some “Gin to make / Me tall again,” but next on the list would be an unceremonious duel with that authority which would “have you stone-tablet everybody.” Don’t worry, God told me to write that. The rules in this town are especially flexible, alchemically shifting, based on what the late Tony Randall described as “everything you were supposed to have learned in elementary school.” In Hall’s tiny dramas, hissing at sheep and letting milk dribble down your chin are essential rites, both then and now. Restoring the You-Show-Me-Yours and I’ll-Show-You-Mine zeitgeist becomes a sacred act, the “exploding crabapple” salvation that the “king of the animal kingdom” unwittingly craves. As Hall chides:
and water meet for the aloof
and curious alike; egg creams
and jellybeans are sustenance
The meal satiates us on the prairie overlooking the collapsing landscape of the mundane as we welcome rise of a new real poet. And damn, aren’t we happy as pigs in crap for Hall’s impassioned winking brain. Let’s only hope he ties up Maya Angelou and delivers the inaugural poem wearing the $150,000 bikini featured on the cover, compliments of the happy-go-lucky RNC.
Scott Glassman is the author of the chapbooks Exertions (Cy Gist Press, 2006) and Surface Tension (Dusie, 2006) with Mackenzie Carignan. His poems have appeared in 580 Split, Jubilat, Iowa Review, Sentence, Sidebrow, Cranky, and others. He has also co-curated the INVERSE Reading Series and Emergency Reading Series in Philadelphia.