watching Sonja Yelich Get Some

Get some coverInteresting book. It tells the story of “Ed”, a fictional American Marine deployed to Iraq. It’s an ambitious task, and one that she doesn’t quite pull off. There are a couple of reasons for this. The author states in the end notes that:

get some is a virtual war that I wove together from a bricolage of the internet, radio, print & T.V. … I am not an American and wanted to retain my own voice – so to a certain extent the language is a blend of tongues and vernaculars

which establishes two of the problems that marred the book for me. The first is voice. We’re told by the back cover blurb that these poems:

follow Ed in Iraq and the responses of his brother, mother and girlfriend to his tour of ‘doody’ – but other voices break through …

I don’t know how many of these ‘voices’ we would be able to identify without that information. There is very little distinction in tone and stance between them, and what differences there are don’t seem to be consistent. Trying to work out who is speaking at any one time is a tough ask, and we do need to know this. Of the 47 poems, I’m fairly confident that four are spoken by Ed’s nameless brother (“Enlisting”, “Puny”, “When Mail is All You’ve Got” and “In the Beginning” – possibly also “The Head”, “Some Guy in Kentucky”, “Hazchem”, and “Man X”); one by his mother (“Doody”, possibly also “That Winter The Axe Was the Story”); one by his girlfriend Stacee (“Such As”); and only a handful told Ed’s own voice (“Kevlar”, “And Canada Salmon”). The rest are hard to pin down – there seems to be a (female?) reporter, who may have had a sexual relationship with Ed (“Renal”, “Smelling”, “The Smell Person”); but the bulk seem to be in the voice of an unnamed, seemingly omniscient narrator (e.g. “The Texaco Star”, “Room with a View”, “T-shirts”).

Does this matter? Well, yes. It’s about establishing credibility. Ed’s young, soaked in popular culture, lazy, and has a thing about personal hygiene. But the speaker of “And Canada Salmon” is a lot more primitive in his thoughts and responses than the speaker of “The Little Blue Car” and “Less”. Has Ed grown up? Has having his leg amputated made him re-evaluate things? (Was it Ed? – no-one refers to an amputation in later poems. So is someone else talking? Who? And why?) It matters because it interferes with the flow of the story, with the reader’s ability to keep the threads of perspective from getting tangled. The differences between the voices isn’t either clear enough, nor fixed enough to establish definite characters, so the whole thing becomes smeared  and generic. Take away the backcover blurb, and how much would you actually know from the poems themselves?

The second issue is the question of credibility. The author has relied on secondary sources for her material, and so what comes through feels somewhat unreal. As Hugh Roberts noted in his review for The Listener (February 28-March 6 2009, Vol 217 No 3590):

The problem I have with these poems is that they are themselves something like a video game. One is expertly conveyed into an impressive simulacrum of a world; but not, necessarily, a real one.

Perhaps you could argue that this is a reflection of the true nature of war – that it is something inherently fragmentary, that the soldiers themselves have only the barest awareness of the wider context. But that’s the problem – the poems aren’t anchored firmly enough to even an imagined reality. Does everyone – soldiers, girlfriends, family, reporters etc – have exactly the same experience of Ed’s war, just with slightly different timing? Does no-one grow, or change, or even disagree?

Having said that, there’s some really good work in here. I’m not as taken with the image of ‘a light plane flying … / … breaks its nose’ (“Bells Down”) as other reviewers (broke it’s head or neck, maybe – there’s no plane crash equivalent to just breaking your nose), but there are some absolutely right lines:

  • ‘Jess next door // waited for her party to arrive in sad ribbons’ (“The Texaco Star”),
  • ‘my life as it was – / once-a-Christmas ago’ (“One Small Cake”),

or the description of Ed’s technologically challenged Mom as

  • ‘Bankrupt for all the switches’ (“Room With A View”).

And I love the play on words in lines like ‘I have had it / with … always having to watch / around the back of my neck’ (“Kevlar”), where you read ‘watch’ and hear ‘wash’ – subverting the cliché and underlining Ed’s obsessive hygiene. And I can’t help thinking that in the final line of “Lay”, where the woman introduces herself – ‘Reuters she says – / pleased to meet you.’ – we’re meant to hear ‘rooters’. (Although I think ‘root’ meaning ‘to have sex with’ is a purely Antipodean term.)

Some of the individual poems are really superb bits of scene setting – I’m thinking particularly of poems like “Blow” and “T-shirts”. In the former, we see Ed as a (slightly gormless) child:

His neighbour showed him how to do an impersonation of a cowboy
blowing the barrel after firing a shot. But because he was not of an
era where cowboys meant anything …
… he got mixed up with the gesture and would put the
barrel into his mouth & blow it like a balloon.

The image is shockingly clear, even if the phrasing isn’t the height of poetry. And then there’s the book’s final poem, which seems to pick up on that image and take it to what has begun to seem like the inevitable conclusion:

Edgar thought in between thinking about what to do next
& the palpitating of his jeep left in the basement garage
whirring …
… Yes. Ed remembered
he had fought in a war running through the adobe huts in some
desert knocking with his barrel on the doors of men curdled
in a huddle waiting for his trigger to release itself …
… Ah, Ed – remembering
the motor & the funny smell puffing its blue way through the
house – took his hose & old T-shirts & headed down the hall.

Ed never seemed more real than in this poem.

Time to consider the Montana Judging Guidelines:

i) Language: What does the poet do with language? Is language used in original ways to fasten the poetry in the imagination and memory?

Yes. Not always as carefully as the reader might like, but definitely yes.

ii) Technique: Is the poet proficient in the use of form, patterning, rhyme scheme and lineation?

Harder to answer. Generally yes (otherwise the wordplay wouldn’t work) but there are a few places where craft appears to have nodded off – “Soap” would have benefitted from some sharper lineation. (When the content is prosy, you need to work harder on rhythm. And this one is a clunk.)

iii) Originality: Does the overall aesthetic effect and appeal of the work go beyond technical proficiency? Are issues explored in real depth in nuanced tones?

This may be the crux of the problem. Other than little snippets (like “Blow” and “T-shirts”) the various characters seem curiously unmoved and unchanged by the whole experience. We don’t really get much of a sense of the war as a war. (I learned more about The Sopranos than I did Ed or the war.)

iv) Integrated whole: Does the work produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts? Do the poems work together harmoniously to create a sense of unity, clarity and completeness? Are themes developed coherently?

And here’s the other shoe. Greater than the sum of its parts? Not really. Good try, but no. Harmonious? No. Coherent? No. Development? No again. It tries to, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s structured as a coherent whole, but with so little delineation of characters or sense of their development … it’s really a jumble of impressions, pinned down by the last poem. (It’s a hell of a finale, but the rest of the show wasn’t really up to that standard.)

Get Some is a book with some serious problems. But it’s also an ambitious book, and there are plenty of individual moments of fine poetry. Most of the poems probably wouldn’t stand well on their own, but that’s alright, they aren’t meant to. It’s unsatisfying because you can see how good a book it could have been. It doesn’t quite succeed, but then it aims a lot higher than most.

How would I sum the book up? Flawed, but decent. A bit like the protagonist. Will I get a copy for myself? No, probably not. But it was definitely worth reading. And deserves its place in contention.

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2 thoughts on “watching Sonja Yelich Get Some

  1. I think the “Simulacrum” comment is right – once again it as an experience of an experience of something. There are always levels of remove, even if the experience “feels” real. A book like this can’t help but remind me of the Iliad, but in the company of Jean Baudrillard’s essay on “War Porn” (I take issue with a lot of his writings, but that’s a really good essay).
    In the aestheticisation, combined with what is likely to be an alien genre for a US GI, written by a citizen of a country relatively removed from the conflict in question, there is a weird ghost-like quality to the book. Regardless of anything else, I find it fascinating.

    In the listener the reviewer mentioned chronological problems. Are they there?

    • Do you mean this comment:

      … How can Edgar have had “back issues of all The Sopranos” (1999-2007) when he was a kid and now be old enough to go off to Iraq? … If Edgar was 15 when Halo3 came out (in late 2007), he’d be 17 at best right now …

      ?

      In which case I’ll have to admit my comparative ignorance of both The Sopranos and Halo3 as temporal placement tools. Assuming the numbers he gives are correct, it does seem a valid point. And there certainly is a weird kind of plasticity about the references from all of the “voices”. No-one seems to have (or lack) knowledge that anyone else lacks (or has, if you follow). And I’m still trying to get my head around why Ed would have stolen ‘Feminine hygiene products’ … (Can’t tell you which poem this is in – the books went back to the library this morning.)

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