Peter Davis, Band Names & Other Poems, Bloof Books, 2018, $16
The latest poetry collection by Peter Davis is everything that the title implies: a long-form list of band names. The two vertical columns that span more than 200 pages get interrupted periodically by more traditional free-verse lyrics, which take their titles from the names in the list. This stack of buzzwords, quips, puns, and slang may contain no apparent narrative arc, but it captures the contemporary pop culture zeitgeist with an authenticity that inevitably eludes more plot-driven attempts at reflecting and cracking the 21st century’s ceaseless stream of kitsch. While scanning down or across the book’s parallel columns—a choice that Davis leaves up to his readers—I’m bombarded by fragments such as “Space Braid,” “The Grew Tender,” “Tailor to the Stars,” “The Death Chubs,” “Web Sweater,” “Pitch Black Fork,” “Moon Tunic,” and “The Jinx Bee,” and it evokes the feeling of scrolling through my Twitter or Instagram feed. The sonic pyrotechnics hypnotize the reader like the most amusing and off-the-wall streams of digital content. And, though the phrases resist one’s tendency to weave layers of meaning, I begin to build small-scale connections between the fragmented themes and images.
These connections never extend beyond more than half of a page, however. As soon as the reader believes they have pinned down a speaker that is drawn to celestial bodies or ‘80s cult classic films, Davis pulls a 180 and drops a more pointed or caustic name, such as “Cry Infanticide” or “Bulls with Crude Oil.” This tactic reminds the reader that even in a sea of language referencing GIF and meme culture, the intensely political can and will surface without pretense or warning. The darker, isolated instances of global and national turmoil might hit harder because they lurk among more lighthearted referents and because the author presents them suddenly, without context or commentary. Perhaps Davis illustrates the potential for affect that a band name can harbor, but I’d contend that it hearkens back to the way small, isolated pieces of information—headlines, Tweets, hashtags—can impact a reader if encountered in a surprising or off-beat manner. So, while I certainly keep reading for names like “Super Funeral,” “Spite Tiger,” and “Gulls Like Rosebuds,” the real payoff is in the more sincere and evocative names such as “Back to Rehab,” “Po Biz,” “Your 2nd PhD,” and “Gun Club Autopsy.”
The poems spliced into Davis’ list also take up the heavy task of surveying the current social landscape. The author’s humor and critique seem the sharpest in long pieces that wrestle with mass culture’s trends of repetition and relativism. “The Lives of Writers,” which reads like a three-page diss list, offers a great example of how the former operates within community discourses. Here, Davis underscores the habit under attack by using the word “writer” to the point where it becomes antagonistic. His momentum reaches fever pitch:
A writer we previously haven’t considered
writes of a writer we will not read about for a long time
to come, “That writer is a bad writer who
can cause your eyes to spin freely in their sockets.”
This poem ribs literary culture, but one gets the sense that Davis could change “writer” to “rocket scientist” and the gesture of the poem’s critique could easily survive. For notable instances where Davis mocks a modern occupation with relativism, one might turn to poems such as “The Sketchbooks of Great Artists,” “That One True Religion,” “How Each and Every Person Might Respond to Every Situation,” and “That One Circumstance.” In the final poem listed, the speaker announces his surprise that it’s possible for people to fall in love and experience the same feelings. The tone shifts in the last lines:
Yes, as I examine it further I see there is a light
trapped inside it and I am a jeweler with a tiny
hammer, tapping toward the center, hoping
to crack this rocklike circumstance. I see
now what I couldn’t see before, how much
I love you, how strange I think the universe is.
The epiphany in this poem finds Davis at the emotional register where he becomes the most engaging and rewarding. For all his irony and voice-driven quirk, there’s a dazzling emotional core lodged in the best Davis poems.
Poems that evoke a warmer and more heartfelt speaker include “Ocean Radiator,” “Songs of Our Forefathers,” and “What Matters.” In these moments, we see a side of Davis that acts as balance to the jester. While the voice is recognizably the same, the speaker shows more concern with celebrating his wife, children, and the love he feels for them. Bands Names & Other Poems would have succeeded in its cultural survey without these intimate meditations, but they add a level of interior sophistication that makes this reader want to follow Davis on his off-beat journey through glitz and kitsch. With Davis, I get the sense that the outrageous or radical and the charming or affectionate are never too far apart.