by Mike Young
Snowmen Losing Weight
by Noah Falck
BatCat Press, 2012
61 pages / $30 Buy from BatCat Press
Not everybody notices you change. Most of the people, they say hey and start telling you about the bicyclist they killed on the way to work or the pistachio jelly bean they invented in their nap. It takes a special kind of person to point out your haircut. Your weight loss, your new fannypack, your sacrifice flys, your hiccups, the stains on your coat from a watermelon and peanut butter sandwich. And beyond that, it’s a rare bird who will say the soft thing about what they notice. Or will take you as you are into a noticing beyond you both.
Noah Falck’s debut poetry collection, Snowmen Losing Weight, comes with puffy eyes and melancholy jokes, but its realest strength is in its pointer finger. Which is pointed not out of judgment or self-congratulation or even to cocoon two observers against the rest of the cold world (OK, well, more on that later), but to be on the lookout, most always, for a wider circle. Measuring tape that goes forever and is always restarting. Or like it says in the very first poem: “Suppose the wind falls / in love with the wrong / season.” A goal of reckless inclusion, including until we’re out of breath, toward a large and dissolving inhabitance.
First, though: I’m not the world’s waxiest book object dude, but yeah, the physicality of this book is too immediate and elegant not to begin with. Snowmen Losing Weight is four-books-in-one, sectioned out in a double-burger dos-à-dos style. Don’t take my word for it:
I don’t want to compete with a video’s description prowess, but I do want to add two things. One, there’s a real formica nostalgia to the vinyl exterior, like I’m six and trying to find everything I dropped under all the kitchen tables I’ve ever seen. Which is further confirmed by the white-and-black speckling on the cover (inverted on the endpages), which I’m going to go ahead and admit reminds me of cookies and cream ice cream. That was the second thing. The important thing: mad props to the students of Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, PA, who design and produce BatCat’s books. They’ve done something beautiful and memorable. It’s an expensive book, but that’s because you’ll want to put it where everyone can see it and coo.
To clarify: the design doesn’t feel like something that’s begging for a high five before it gives you a ticket. What I felt in my “tactile experience”—section hopping, cracking between new spines, making one smooth flipover at the midway point—was a memory of intermissions and overlooked physical bounds. Like let’s not forget that strip where the carpet is nailed down to prevent it from shagging into the bathroom. Or like it says in the poem “Moons Over My Hammy”: “There were other moments, I’m sure, / moments like ice cubes stuck to the bottom of the glass, / like interrupted keyboard solos to be continued later.” Don’t pretend transition doesn’t take some work, the book says. OK, I said. You’re gorgeous. If you want me to notice the work it takes to move between enclosed spaces and enclosed feelings, and if your objectness is the beginning of my interaction with these poems in a significant way, I will go ahead and think about that as I am reading them.
In thinking about that and reading these poems, I kept thinking the word “tableau.” So I looked it up to make sure: OK, yes, Mondrian, scenic arrangement, and tableau vivant, living picture, a parlor game and then a style of narrative photography. In these poems, images do build and hold still next to each other. But Falck’s eye is evocative because it’s not just image arrangement that it’s after. That’s step one, but step two is image imagination. Images fertilized in other images. Take: “The scoreboard leaks / a boatload of Japanese beetles.” Or take a fire escape, where “a woman / takes off her coat like a superhero.” Tell me in which order this image originally occurred: “The night is longer than someone trying on and then peeling off a turtleneck.” And it’s sensory fertilization too, like when the darkness in the poem “Ghosts in Cargo Shorts” smells of granola bars and canned laughter. I mean, maybe, OK, any poet in the room is apt to call on themselves to figure out what the darkness smells like, but I like how many cabinets Falck’s poem-cooking arms are rifling through.
Going on with the tableau idea: there’s a healthy respect for narrative, but I’m not sure about that word, I guess, when I read: “Once upon a time silver car / beneath the streetlight was not a car at all … and the deaf boy / flew the bird in heavy traffic. Once upon / a time in a crowded locker room twenty- / two women waxed lips in unison.” Like narrative is getting respected, but something else is getting revered.
The second poem in the book is called “Though I Don’t Know You, I Think You Could Probably Stop the Rain,” and this poem is between an I and a you, and the I notices how the you’s cell phone gives off just enough light to see faces, and this makes the I want things: “And it made / me want to know what / it was like to hear music / the way you hear music. / But you turned your head / away to signal for your friends. / Over here, you yelled / I’m living my afterlife.” So maybe I was wrong in the second paragraph. Maybe when we’re talking about tableaus and pointer fingers and wider circles and shit, we are, after all, talking about an I that wants to bring a you into a closer world. A don’t-joke-about-the-afterlife-let’s-live-in-looking. A noticing buried in whispers, in a big coat the voice has slung over itself and the listener.
Like for example Spanish gets spoken, in these poems, through leftover lipstick marks. These poems keenly and softly see us melting the world into ourselves: “Your love life is a neighborhood in Chicago / where car alarms lull babies off / into dreams of wingless, singing hummingbirds.” Oh man, I am really talking myself into this new idea: that these poems aren’t tableaus, or the tableau isn’t a way to include yourself in the world, it’s a way to use the world to define a duo, or as the poem “In the Tunnel to Daydreaming” says: “The umbrella / of every occasion. We pretend inside a toothy radius of light.” Or someone makes a book that everyone wants to touch, but it’s the reader alone who really has to do the touching necessary to move through it all.
Still: Falck’s net is, ultimately, wider than pillow talk. He knows you don’t need to be secretly in love with everyone you imagine. Being alone with one person all the time isn’t the end all be all. Because there are always neighbors watching you drink milk. Multiple people are always telling you that your face reminds them of someone about to hiccup. People have “hidden handguns and hair / poofing out like unlucky umbrellas.” They have shower thoughts, and these thoughts “become monuments casting the kind of shadows / people photograph for friends.” Probably this is just me making things more complicated than they need to be, but I like to think of that line two ways: 1) you take pictures of shadows because you think your friends will like those pictures, yes, and 2) taking pictures of shadows is your version of having friends. This seems like a good tonic to the wide-world-of-lovers-against-the-world idea. A way of arranging and fertilizing images in the world that will work both in and out of love. Or how the poem “Man Versus Style” puts it: “When he reached the street corner with the slow moving traffic and everyone’s eyes, he thought twice about combing his hair.”
Like anything that’s full of good stuff, it’s inevitable to wonder “how and why is this so full of good stuff?” and in so wondering, leave stuff out. There are some things in Snowmen Losing Weight I haven’t talked about, like the skeleton key of a Wallace Stevens namedrop in “Boss Crashes the Party.” The delicate succession of the four sections, the differences and connections between them and how the last section is suddenly all prose poems. Or the archeology of eyes and looks that runs through all these poems, from “looks that must have inspired the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner” to “in your eyes the clapping of several simultaneous first kisses in the shade of a Mexican sitcom.” The character poems: dog trainers and retired square dancers, who admit that “love was something lying around / among vacuum cleaner parts at a yard sale.” There’s a file cabinet full of hair clippings I haven’t really mentioned. There are confessions inside pickup lines. The book ends with an epic rundown of the American midwest, premised as a run of measuring tape, perhaps tired subject matter rescued by specificity and contrast/combinatory powers: “people hugging in small groups, their colorful fannypacks overlapping in smoke groomed bowling alleys.”
Listen, I think I am from the walking-around school of poetry criticism. Which asks: will these poems affect how I walk around? Will they end up part of the chemistry I squirt on my contact lenses? For me, I see so much urgent seeing in these poems, seeing that wrestles between its desire to share itself and its confusion about whether to share itself with what it sees or into one special other set of eyes. So I walk around and see through that. I see a dude in a wheelchair putting his coat on in the courtyard of the apartment complex next door, the complex with the fountain. And before reading Noah Falck’s Snowmen Losing Weight, I would probably see this wheelchair dude and think about how all my friends get mixed up between the complex I live in and the one with the fountain and end up buzzing the wrong bell. But now I notice how the dude stops his coat after getting one arm on. The rest of the coat is just flapping against him, and he is wheeling away, and because of Snowmen Losing Weight I am not going to call that giving up.