March 14, 2015

In Pursuit of Shenanigans: A Review of Dan Nowak's the hows and whys of my failures by Anthony Frame

Cover credit: Hyacinth Girl Press
the hows and whys of my failures, by Dan Nowak
Hyacinth Girl Press (2014)

Reviewed by Anthony Frame

The bio note for Dan Nowak’s third chapbook, the hows and whys of my failures, concludes, “Dan takes his time to pursue worthwhile shenanigans with the love of his life.” The pursuit of shenanigans, often in the name of love, turns out to be an apt description of these fourteen short, stream of consciousness poems that race from curiosity to conclusion at a manic pace. Throughout, Nowak’s abrupt line breaks and his complex interplay between ideas and language strip away the artifice of the modern world and leave the reader staring, at times uncomfortably, at how these naked poems wrestle with the world in which they live.

The collection opens simply, plainly, and absurdly: “you’re beautiful like a dolphin.” This, according to the opening poem’s title, is “one of many failed pick-up lines.” This immediately extends the possibilities of what Nowak might do and where he might go over the next fourteen pages. The poem then jumps from the speaker’s failure to find dolphins attractive to a brief meditation on imaginary “future and science fiction children.” By the end, when the speaker decides truth is obnoxious (“almost like a dolphin”), Nowak has fully prepared us for the voice, the tone, and the style of his chapbook. But, perhaps more importantly, he has prepared us for the pace of these poems.

They are frenetic, so much that they push the limits of comfort. Take, for example, “this is my rifle.” Over the course of fourteen lines, Nowak writes about love as a gun, his lack of scholarly knowledge, his inability to talk to a girl, ruminations on how the girl might kiss, how much he has had to drink, a brief meditation on attraction, questions about how the night was supposed to go, a post-party cleanup, and waking up alone. And all of these are strung together without punctuation. But Nowak deftly holds these thoughts together through the rifle metaphor, which transforms from being about love to being about attraction to, finally, being about the speaker’s penis. This transformation coincides with the speaker daydreaming about the girl. As his fantasies intensify to the point of disintegration, so too does the rifle metaphor until all that is left is the speaker “alone again with my hand down my pants and drinks i meant to buy still in my pocket."

Each of these poems works in a similar way (see, especially, “what is implied,” “an option on how to replace church,” and “when it all goes sonic boom boom boom”), but the absurdism and the loose strings connecting each part of each poem prevents the collection from becoming predictable. Still, absurdity, irony and wit alone are not enough to hold a collection like this together. What makes Nowak’s poems work, and work wonderfully, is the intimacy and honesty behind all his surreal leaps. Most of these poems are about love and/or relationships. But connecting with another person is never easy in these pages. Take, for example, “names are like signs for yourself,” in which the author and a bartender discuss the commonality of names. Nowak wants desperately to engage in this conversation but the overactive mind, the one responsible for all these poetic leaps, is unable. Instead, he writes:
i politely sip my beer and imagine
him with my name and how that would change him.
i think he wouldn’t be so judgmental or he would be more.
and i ask myself, how many more letters do i need
before i am someone completely different.
The love poems in this collection are similarly tough and tense and a bit nightmarish. In one poem, the speaker encourages his partner that “sex for money isn’t necessarily such a bad / idea as long as you’re safe” (“and just because i haven't encouraged”). In another, he questions his ability to write about his partner because “your story is boring” (“what is implied”). But strongest of all is the poem, “behind the pretty lights.” The lovers in this poem work desperately to come together while simultaneously pushing each other away. They hold hands and notice the empty spaces between the fingers. They insist on the silence of silence. And those pretty lights, the ones that make the lover dance, are ultimately used “to put the right amount of distance between my body and yours.”

Still, behind the angst, behind the speaker’s obsession with his failures, there is a tenderness. This is best seen in “why i am never really upset about you waking up with me.” Here, the speaker recognizes the selfishness of his desire to keep his lover with him, to make his bed “more home than home” for her. “you’ll see me for who i am,” Nowak writes:
you won’t picture
anything less, but push yourself against
my ribs. i will let you in. that isn’t a question.
It is this tenderness, this heightened awareness of the self and others, and of the relationship between the self and others, that keeps the collection approachable and relatable. It is this tenderness that earns the surreal moments where kissing leads to thoughts about leprosy and armadillos (“why i can never invite you over after i drink moscato all night”).

the hows and whys of my failures accomplishes something pretty spectacular. It smoothly and matter-of-factly blends postmodern dadaism with narrative lyricism. And, perhaps most importantly, it does so unapologetically. Nowak’s new chapbook leaves little doubt about his skill, his wit, and his devotion to honesty, about himself and his world. Indeed, if these poems contain any failures, they are beautiful failures. They are magical failures. Just like dolphins. And armadillos.

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