Hilary Menos reviews I Dreamed I Was Emily Dickinson’s Boyfriend by Ron Koertge (Red Hen Press, 2022)
In the title poem of this collection Ron Koertge displays a nice familiarity with the poetry of Emily Dickinson:
She asks for help with her poetry. Hope is a thing with …
1. Fur 2. Down 3. Feathers 4. An exoskeleton
She’s older than me so she can buy beer at any 7-Eleven. She likes
a liquor never brewed. Which 7-Eleven doesn’t carry.
It’s funny and clever and we feel smart for having got the references. And it’s not just Emily Dickinson that we spot. Scattered throughout this book are a host of literary references, from Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ written from the point of view of the trespassed-against landowner, and Jane Austen, whose modern-day counterpart is dressed in Lululemon gear and busy shopping in the mall with her boyfriend, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Poor Mary Shelley. She may be holidaying near Lake Geneva but it’s all pretty grim. She says:
How big a fool have I been. I rarely feel well
and Percy is relentless. There are bats every night.
Byron limps about spouting poetry. The rain
is unrelenting. Everybody smells.
As you can see, Koertge inhabits – and endows – his various subjects with insight and humour, dealing out poems in the voices of car crash dummies, Aphrodite, Mickey Mouse, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Bride of Frankenstein, among others.
All this sounds as if the collection is a laugh-a-minute, superficial thing. It’s not. It is funny, yes, but also affectionate, quirky, surreal, and occasionally pretty dark. The poem ‘Parkview1 – 9426’, besides dating all of us who remember a time pre-mobile phones, focuses on that little pad by the phone “attached to the wall by a leash” for shopping lists and diary dates, which was of course always covered in doodles of stars and snowmen and stick figures, of initials and hearts and cupid’s arrows, and, as Koertge’s poem progresses, “arrows with wicked-looking barbs // to show how wrong love can go while simply talking / on the telephone”. Ouch. In ‘Last night’ a couple have a row in a taco joint in front of their four-year old child. The boy is playing with a toy dinosaur:
He dips its head into the hot sauce and the guacamole.
It stands in the refried beans.
Suddenly a tyrannosaurus looms from behind the chips,
“Why do you have to dress like such a slut.”
Both poems show how swiftly things can go from ostensibly pleasant to really quite scary. Through poems like these, the underlying themes of the collection become clear – childhood, difficult or failing adult relationships, and, in particular, what adult relationships look like through the eyes of a child. In ‘Lover’s Lane’, two boys realise that the Oldsmobile driving down to “the place we’d heard about from older / boys” belongs to one of their dads. What do they do?
We turned our backs on them, crept deeper
into the woods and pretended to read some comics
Superman saving the world again, Lois
in his arms, forsaking all others and holding
only onto him.
The children understand far more than the adults give them credit for, and have to find ways to deal with it, sublimate it, or simply avoid facing it.
Koertge inhabits – and endows – his various subjects with insight and humour, dealing out poems in the voices of car crash dummies, Aphrodite, Mickey Mouse, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Bride of Frankenstein, among others
Throughout the collection, Koertge sees and describes the world as a child might see it, to great effect. In ‘It’s After Dinner’, while all the other adults are watching CNN, the narrator of the poem wanders off to where two boys are playing with toy cars under the table. They need help with a few things (notably, can whores fly, and how can all the passengers in a bus commit suicide at once). The narrator gives them satisfactory answers – “Call girls, probably, get to fly / sometimes. Regular working girls, probably not.” and “How about if everybody eats spiders until their / brains leak out of their ears.” – and, by dint of these answers, is accepted by the two boys as being one of them. “They make room for me under the table”.
I particularly like Koertge’s way with a prose poem. There are seven or eight in the collection and two in particular stand out, for me – ‘Girl Talk’ and ‘Law & Order.’ In the former, the poem narrator ’s mother has been “married three times and cries herself to sleep. She makes me never want to have a kid”. I can’t help quoting a chunk of this:
[…] The other day in
the computer lab, I looked up animals that mate for life instead of three-
day weekends in Palm Springs. Here’s what I found: Black vultures, French
angelfish, Gibbons, Swans, Wolves, Termites, Beavers, Prairie Voles, Bald
eagles, Barn owls. I imagined everything on that list getting together at a
Holiday Inn and celebrating their devotedness. They’re all so different there
wouldn’t be any jealousy though I can imagine the wolves might want to
eat the voles but since the wolf-husband has been married a long time he
would know you can’t just do what you want so he’d wait till the buffet was
available so as not to ruin the weekend for everybody, even the termites.
Yet again we can feel anxiety over how adults arrange their lives, and the impermanence of relationships. I’m particularly touched by the child’s understanding that as an adult you just can’t do what you want. In ‘Law & Order’, the narrator’s son inherits a policeman’s hat from his uncle, and starts behaving like “a little Nazi”. At some point his father asks him,
“Don’t you think you’re taking this law enforcement thing
a little too seriously?” He sighed, sounding like a much older, much heavier
man. He pointed at the cracked mirror that stood in for a pond. “We found
little Becky Turrell’s body this morning. Where were you on the night of
There’s more anxiety, albeit of a gentler sort, in the poem ‘Double Vision’ where the narrator dates Jane, one of a pair of twins, “though it could have been Joan in an identical lavender formal”. When they break up, one of the twins is crying and one is waving. “But which one?”
Koertje is prolific. Some of these poems are working harder to earn their place in the collection than others. There are four sections, with 14 – 17 poems in each, but I don’t see why it’s split up that way – maybe just for ease of navigation, because the poems in each section don’t seem to me to be thematically liked or chronological.
Koertge’s poetry is compassionate, generous, irreverent and smart, and I like it
The last poem in the book – ‘Things and how they work’ – is a six page exploration of a life growing up in small town east of the Mississippi. Koertge is still finding ways to show us what kids learn and how they deal with it. The narrator as a boy, sees the wife of his maths teacher, Mr Taylor,
[…] standing in a blow-up kiddy
pool smoking a cigarette and crying, holding
her house dress up around her knees.
And then I’d think house dress house dress
house dress until it turned into somebody
whispering in another language.
The refrain throughout this poem, as on and off throughout the book, is “Things don’t always work out”. For Mrs Taylor, for Mr Taylor, and also most tellingly for local basketball star Terry Armstrong, “six-ten” and “unstoppable / with his left hand” who doesn’t succeed in helping the local team win the crucial game, ends up as a car salesman, and “kind of melted into the town”. It’s not a happy ending for Terry, though not a particularly unhappy one either. Just small town life. It’s a tender, poignant poem, not particularly funny, and very moving.
Some of the poems lift off at the end and fly into slightly surreal territory, perhaps as a more adult way to resolve or avoid tension. In ‘Mermaids’ the narrator and his friend pick up a couple of girls and, encouraged by the girls to try to scare them, drive the car right off the edge of the dock. They all escape through the open windows:
Mitch and I clawing our way up. Abby and the other one holding
hands like mermaids, things at home in another world entirely.
Koertge is an American poet and author of young adult fiction, with more than twenty books of poetry under his belt, and is currently the Poet Laureate of South Pasadena, California. He lives in Pasadena with his wife in Strode House, the home of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character Laurie Strode in the original Halloween movie, one of the most famous horror movies of all time. Koertge’s website says that fans of the movie still visit the house and are welcomed year-round with pumpkins. I can believe this, and if I’m ever in Pasadena I’m making a special trip to visit. Koertge’s poetry is compassionate, generous, irreverent and smart, and I like it.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her first pamphlet, Extra Maths (Smith|Doorstop, 2005), was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2004/05. Her second pamphlet, Wheelbarrow Farm (Templar, 2010), was a winner in the 2010 Templar Pamphlet & Collection Awards. Her third pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019/20. Her fourth pamphlet, Fear of Forks, is just out with HappenStance Press.