Hilary Menos reviews Many Professional Wrestlers Never Retire by Dane Holt (The Lifeboat, 2023)
My son Inigo is a fan of puzzles. He usually gets one in his Christmas stocking. He cut his teeth (not literally, though it came close) on Huzzle Puzzles – he got the Huzzle Violin (level three) when he was thirteen, then the Huzzle Padlock (level five) the following year, and the year after that, the Huzzle Trinity (level six, the hardest level). At that point he stated buying them himself. Now he has all ten level six Huzzle Puzzles. This year marked his final Christmas stocking (he’s seventeen now, and I draw the line at creeping into an eighteen-year-old’s bedroom late on Christmas Eve to place a rustling sock at the end of a bed). There are no more level six Huzzles left, so we wrapped a small Himitsu Bako and tucked it into his stocking, along with a tin of Lamarque Délices de Vignes, a champagne bottle stopper – a must for any self-respecting young chef de cuisine – some fish tweezers, and a bottle of Blackbelette Breton seaweed and pepper sauce.
A Himitsu Bako is a Japanese wooden puzzle box which can only be opened by a non-obvious and sometimes complicated series of manipulations. Inigo’s measures about three inches by two, and is covered in pretty wooden inlay. Seven steps are required to open it. I considered putting a Captain Kirk badge inside it, for extra fun, but it seemed a bit mean to not let him be the first to open it, and besides I couldn’t work out how to do it, even with the hints.
This is all true, and maybe interesting or maybe not – your call – but I’m also wondering whether the puzzle works as a conceptual framework for addressing a poem or collection of poetry – in this case Dane Holt’s pamphlet, Many Professional Wrestlers Never Retire, published last year by The Lifeboat. Like Nell Nelson, I’ve been considering the approach put forward by Jon Stone in his pamphlet-essay, Poems Are Toys (and Toys Are Good For You) published by Calque Press. Helena Nelson uses the ‘poem as toy’ idea in her review of Shapeshifting for Beginners by Emma Simon, although in an early draft of her piece she did actually suggest that a poem might be better compared to a puzzle. And this makes sense. We read a poem – at least in part – to find out what it means. If we don’t know what a poem means, we often feel someone has failed – ourselves, for not understanding it, or the poet, for being too obscure. Roddy Howland Jackson, in ‘Beastly Clues: T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword’, suggests Modernist poetry can resemble a series of clues: “In 1939, a poetry critic at the Birmingham Daily Gazette could not decide if Eliot’s masterpiece was cryptically brilliant or merely an overwrought cryptic: “‘The Wasteland’ may be a great poem; on the other hand it may be just a rather pompous cross-word puzzle”.
But back to the kitchen table, where I’m turning Dane Holt’s poetry round and round in my mind and trying to find a way into it, and Inigo is sitting opposite me turning his Himitsu Bako round and round and trying to find a way into that. I’m going to review this pamphlet as if it were a Himitsu Bako, a Japanese puzzle box, and see if that works as an approach.
I’m going to review this pamphlet as if it were a Himitsu Bako, a Japanese puzzle box
I suppose I should start with the pamphlet cover, which is a pleasing shade of purple, but delivers little else – maybe this is the wrapper on the box, metaphorically speaking. Onwards to the Contents page, which is much more fun. I’m in the ‘Anticipation’ stage, according to Jon Stone in his essay in this month’s Friday Poem, Next time you dive (or How to play a poem), and titles like ‘Billy Liar at the North Pole’ are whetting my appetite. I know about Billy Liar, and I’m pretty sure he never went to the North Pole. What will Holt make of this pairing? Other titles here sound fun too – ‘Agent Hot Sauce’, ‘There is No Plan B ‘. And I’m intrigued by the poems about wrestlers. The title poem, for example, is obviously wrestling-inspired, but there’s also ‘The Bodybuilders in the Parking Lot of Gold’s Gym, Venice, California’, and another titled ‘John Cena’. Before googling John Cena, I asked Inigo, who waggled his fingers in front of his face and said “You can’t see me”, which is The American wrestler’s catch phrase, apparently.
This process with the Contents list is, perhaps, like Inigo unwrapping his Himitsu Bako and admiring the intricate and beautiful inlay patterns on the different faces of the box. Surely he experiences the same pleasurable anticipation that the first glance at a poem gives me. We are both starting to get a sense of what sort of thing this is, and how one might best investigate it.
The next stage, according to Stone, is ‘The Feel Of It’. For Inigo this means literally running his fingers over the box, pressing gently against the inlay to see what gives, trying to work out whether the inlay patterns offer him any sort of clue as to which area might slide or pivot. For me, it means reading through the pamphlet fairly swiftly, sometimes from beginning to end, sometimes just dipping in, and seeing which poems make me want to play with them more – to “pluck and pry at them”, in Stone’s words. That done, I’m going to look briefly at three or four poems, the ones that gave most pleasure in the reading, that yielded meaning in interesting ways (or that resisted my plucking and prying in interesting ways) as I tried to tease open this particular pamphlet-poem-puzzle-box.
‘Many Professional Wrestlers Never Retire’ is the opening poem. It’s easy to find a way into, because the language is direct and the tone is conversational. It begins:
Some continue wrestling long into their 70s
and sometimes 80s in increasingly violent matches
before dwindling audiences.
Holt gives me a new word to learn – ‘kayfabe’ – which generates a blank look from Inigo, but which Google tells me is “the fact or convention of presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic”, and might drive from a pig-latin-ish version of “be fake”. He also delivers a lovely line break:
Up and down the country
they can be found in high school gyms
for the fans who will still pay to see them
die for their nostalgia.
This reminds me of the boxing poems in Declan Ryan’s New Walk pamphlet Fighters, Losers, both in content and in style. Holt has a similar level of sprawl – his poetry is contemporary and confident, but a bit more surreal. Perhaps he’s also been influenced by Luke Kennard – there’s something very Kennardian about the way the poem zig-zags sideways at the end:
Most want to be taken seriously but they aren’t
interested in the films we are making.
Holt has clearly dug into the wrestling stuff – he has a sharp eye and writes with humour. He observes his subjects closely, and uses entertaining imagery to describe them. In ‘The Bodybuilders in the Parking Lot of Gold’s Gym, Venice, California’, for example, the bodybuilders once had backs “wide as stingrays / and they struggled to wipe themselves”. That tells me everything I need to know (and possibly more). This piece is studded with references that ground it firmly in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century – Zubaz pants, Old Glory bandanas, Ronald Reagan, Tupperware, and, of course, “Arnold”, who trained at the gym and “was Mr. Olympia / 7 times between 1970-1980”. Out of a series of short statements – often one-liners – Holt somehow manages to wring pathos. “From midday they pose for the tourists / in the parking lot”. “They can seat a woman on each bicep and smile. / Men challenge them to arm wrestles, which they lose.”
Holt observes his subjects closely, and uses entertaining imagery to describe them
While I tussle playfully with Dane Holt, Inigo is also sitting at the kitchen table tutting over his puzzle box. He has discovered that one small strip of inlay slides up by about five millimetres. This must allow another piece to slide, somewhere. Using his thumb, he presses down on every part of each side, methodically, centimetre by centimetre. Nothing budges. He repeats the process. Occasionally he sighs, exasperatedly.
Occasionally I sigh exasperatedly, too. I’m feeling ambivalent about ‘The Sky a Toothache Shade of White’. It offers me another new word, which I like – “damier-patterned tiles”. Damier-patterned? Chequerboard, says Google, and I kick myself because I could probably have guessed that from the context, which is: “In the foyer, clear/opaque damier-patterned tiles balance grandeur and its synonyms perfectly”. The poem also yields a spectacular simile:
He looked up from his ottoman with a face like currency
won and lost all night across a deal table.
This is evocative – so much is implied in so few words. But beyond this, I’m feeling a little confused. We are in an Ice Hotel. The person with the “face like currency won and lost” is a Mr Incumbent. “We” have tortured him, yes, but only by “entering the anteroom with purpose only to forget what we’d come in for”. There’s reference to a campaign – perhaps it’s a political campaign, if there’s an incumbent – then dams, volcanic ash, fighter jets and floods. Is this climate change? It does feel a bit apocalyptic. The title reminds me of the Procol Harum song, I have now entered Stone’s ‘Talking to the Poet’ stage, where I try to make sense of what the poet is trying to say, and, frankly, I have no idea. But when Holt wraps this poem up with, “A drop of water runs down a seam in the Ice Cathedral dome / like word coming down the mountain any day now” I’m prepared to forgive him. It sounds fun, it sounds as if he knows what he’s going on about. I think I’ve fast tracked through Stone’s ‘Playing the Judge’ stage to his ‘Letting Go’ stage. I don’t need to know what it’s about. I don’t need to ‘solve’ it, just enjoy it. And I may come back to this one later.
Another one I might need to come back to is the big, central poem ‘Broadway’ – a six-pager, with a ten-line section on each page, each line with ten syllables. A note tells us that Broadway, or Going Broadway, is a wrestling term for a match that ends in a time limit draw. For a World Championship match, this is 60 minutes. Hence sixty syllables per poem, presumably, or sixty lines in total. The piece examines the life of a wrestler – “You bleed. But you never lose. / That’s the secret to working like a champ.” It has brio: “Come here and interview the champion!”. It has pathos : “Your boys mirror you. You hate them for it. / You’re home for a week. You can’t wait to leave.” Here’s my favourite section:
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico:
You defend the belt in a used-car lot.
You’re booked again at six in a cow pen.
Entrances and exits: the babyface
And the heel both make their way through shit
But you wear the $2000 robe.
The match is part of a carnival:
Pay your admission and ride the Big Wheel,
Dunk the idiot in the tank, or watch
The Heavyweight Champion of the World.
This has the stamp of authenticity – it feels to me as if Holt has really done his homework. It also feels as if he is having fun, and so am I.
But does the conceptual framework of a small Japanese puzzle box make an appropriate fit for a review of his poetry. Well … not really. A puzzle only has one solution
But does the conceptual framework of a small Japanese puzzle box make an appropriate fit for a review of his poetry. Well … not really. A puzzle only has one solution. You open the box, or separate the pieces, or complete the crossword / sudoku / word search, and then it’s done. You might do it again, to show someone else how to do it, but a puzzle is basically a one-shot thing. Whereas you might go back to a poem over and over again. You might uncover layers of meaning, or appreciate other aspects of the poet’s craft, or simply enjoy the sound of the words in your mouth or your head. You can build a relationship with a poem which can last years. I don’t understand half of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, and even if I studied the notes and explored every reference, my relationship with it would still be based on the sound of the words, the cadences, the sonic echo.
As I finish this review, Inigo finds the seventh step and slides open the top of the box, revealing the honey-coloured wooden cavity within. He grins and sits back in his chair contentedly. I ask him what he likes about puzzles. He talks about internal locus and self-efficacy, how solving a puzzle is tangible evidence of mastery, how self-efficacy is inversely correlated with depression. Also, he says, they make your brain tingle. Which is what Dane Holt’s poetry does, actually.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem.