Prose Feature: On Commas and Coyness: A Review of Proprietary by Randall Mann by D. Gilson

September 22, 2017

The poet Allan Peterson contends that “the inevitable often / stands by plainly but unnoticed.” Proprietary is the result of Randall Mann’s noticing and his rendering of the otherwise mundane into many lives, many selves, slowly, quietly exploding.

The poems of Proprietary travel many places familiar to Mann’s oeuvre. In reading them we become teenagers in Florida, a state “obscured yet pure” where derision is “a tattooed flame crackling / underneath the lewd, uncool / khaki of an amused park worker.” Or we travel to Europe as men with younger companions, to Zurich where a tour guide asks, “They’re always over seventeen, / right?” and the speaker confesses, “I told her of course, / God yes, and, seething, smiled, // which I’m famous for. / I didn’t want to scare / her. But I tell you, / I’m keeping score.”

But if these poems are in a singular place and time, they’re absolutely in contemporary San Francisco, and enunciated most often by a speaker who playfully mourns the old city of leather bars, urinal hookups, and “The jaundiced / alcoholic with the Casio / [who] plays standards / in front of the postcards / of the newly dead.” The new San Francisco, Proprietary’s speaker maintains, is on a nouveau riche “bio-break,” and has become a “campus-/ cum-office-/ park” that “paints dotted-/ line reports for sport.” Or elsewhere, he charges, “This city is money to burn, / a cupful of change,” a bifurcated class condition so stark, yet somehow genuine, nestled alongside poems that praise the likes of Halston or Prince.

From his 2004 debut collection, Complaint in the Garden, forward, Mann has solidified himself the brightest child of the New Formalists, working in a direct genealogy that includes Elizabeth Bishop and Allen Tate. But more than his other collections, Proprietary, with its lean lines and omnipresent dark humor, smells heavily of Theodore Roethke. “I manage in an office,” the speaker of Mann’s “Proximity” tells us, “but an office / that faces a hallway, not the bay. One day / I hope to see the bay that way.”

One cannot help but think of Roethke’s own take on office life, “Dolor,” with an unsparing catalogue including “the inexorable sadness of pencils, … / All the misery of manila folders and mucilage, / Desolation in immaculate public places / … Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma.” But unlike Roethke, Mann’s decidedly postmodern office grammar renders more sharply, cuts more deeply, and desires more unapologetically. This is evident in the verse “Black Box,” one of my favorites from the collection, where the speaker informs us:

 

I’m paid to multitask,
scramble the life
out of fun:
Monday I will ask you—
every dash a loaded gun,
every comma, a knife—
to bury the black-box file.

 

These dashes and commas we by necessity succumb to within Proprietary are at turns heartbreaking (a la Roethke’s understated syntax of sadness), but also dangerous and playful. Admittedly, I swoon at Mann’s command of the line, his ability to break, pause, regroup, and leave us begging for more vis-à-vis the deployment of punctuation. “My lack of faith is punctuation—” he intones with the poem “Almost,” quickly correcting himself, “no wait, the lack of punctuation.” How can one not swoon?

Per usual, Mann’s restraint is perhaps his biggest poetic strength. His ability to say less, to contract so much significance into such tight spaces, renders us, always and positively, begging for more. In “Realtor,” we are teased:

 

There is a feeling
just shy of feeling,
like tongue on teeth.
Disbelief
hangs there,
an ill-chosen comma,
a lanyard with a pass.
I swear the train is coming.
I’m only here to help.

 

Mann quietly manipulates the tools long available to poets — rhyme, both slant and perfect, for instance — that have sadly fallen out of favor with too many writers. The result is far from quiet, but rather boldly innovative in an era when so many of his peers sloppily fill the page side to side, top to bottom, and mislabel the result poetry. But perhaps that hunger to publish, that drive to fame, however trivial, is something innate; or as Mann describes hunger in “Renewal,” perhaps it is “The famine in our eyes; / the spawn of franchise.”

In Proprietary, Mann offers us an endlessly complex, playful, and careful social commentary, wrought through his always-present-but-here-enhanced attention to line, to break, to grammar, to thought. To the things that make a poem succeed. The best endorsement of this book I suppose I can give is that it makes me thirsty for the next.

 

*

D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (Sibling Rivalry, 2015); Crush, with Will Stockton (Punctum Books, 2014); Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013); and Catch & Release (2012), winner of the Robin Becker Prize. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University, and his work has appeared in Threepenny Review, PANKThe Rumpus, and as a notable essay in Best American Essays.

Previous post:

Next post: