Shame Shame, by Devin Becker
Shame Shame, by Devin Becker (BOA Editions, 2015)
ISBN 9781938160592, $16.00
Becker’s debut poetry collection, which recasts the prose poem as a selfie, diary entry, or Tweet, explores the contractions and expansions of narrative, and ultimately, challenges us to reflect on the impulse to narrate our lives. “I saw a snake and it didn’t bite me,” reads one line from a poem early in the book, “Tobacco Outlet.” The statement acts as a cursory remark, and for this reason, feels both intimate and estranging. Is it a genuine expression of relief or fear—or both? Is it a remark made for the sake of having something to report?
As one continues to read Shame Shame, the bevy of cursory remarks expose a narrator trapped in a cycle of self-immolation in his battle to preserve a fixed notion of the self. In another poem, the same speaker, smoking on his front lawn, remarks of a surfeit of skunks: “I do not want to be, but I am afraid of them, so I put out my cigarette in the grass and go back in.” Fear underlies this confession, too, and it’s these desultory glances at fear that engage us in an author-reader conversation about how and why we narrate experience, especially when we “re-see” it in the retrospect.
While Becker’s “subject” of diarist prose isn’t unique to him, his treatment of the subject in this collection is. Becker’s work joins him on the one hand to recent prose works such as Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but, on the other hand, to the more metaphysical spirit of poets Russell Edson and Zachary Schomburg. This combination means that, instead of the nonsensical or Freudian-seeming riddle (e.g., Russell Edson’s “The Academic Sigh” [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/181237]), Becker strives for the subtle riddle couched in ordinary terms, which always involves a negotiation of identity and power. This is similar to, but still distinct from, the way Julie Otsuka’s novel The Budda in the Attic links multiple narratives of Japanese “picture” bride characters in order to effectively essentialize the experience. The difference is that Becker expects his reader to compare her own narrativizing process to that of the speaker of his poems. More specifically, Becker’s book actively unravels the confessional narrative—the narrative we commonly use to describe our everyday lives to ourselves and others—to expose them as incoherent, possibly even surreal in and of itself.
The opening poem, a bit more Schomburgian than the others that follow, is Becker’s “how-to” for reading the ensuing interlocutions between narrative and the speaker. Here’s an excerpt from “Western” that positions the character of the country western film as “No One”:
“No One” is also a type of dream job, and all my life I’ve heard him calling from the inside: What is love, he asks, save something he is in, like trouble.
No One is also a type of American everyone loves—
In these lines, Becker’s speaker presents a key conflict of the book: here’s me (the speaker of the poem), and then there is the No One of Westerns “I” have to contend with. As the poem continues, the speaker conflates No One with himself:
No One says, Son, if you blow your brains out they will come—
I ask: Whose is this salesman’s voice in me that wants me gone?
That final, resonant metaphysical question prepares us readers to read the rest of Becker’s collection with many of our own—who are we, what is narrative, who wields it, what power does it have, and how does it negotiate with our identities?—and is a crucial one that Becker refashions and sets to task again and again throughout Shame Shame.
The poems that follow in the first of the three sections have location-specific titles (“Smoothie Joint,” “Tobacco Outlet,” “Restaurant,” “Auditorium,” etc.) that deceptively position the reader in familiar—because named—environments. “Tobacco Outlet,” for example, leads unsuspecting readers into the Tobacco Outlet not only to buy cigarettes, but also to follow him through his narration of his “identity”:
I resist myself almost successfully for about an hour, have a strong beer to reward my discipline, then, the alcohol helping (if that is the word), stop resisting the urge to, hop in the car, and drive a mile or so up to where the interstate exits are to buy some cigarettes.
I am not disappointed in myself for doing this.
This seemingly aimless description is followed with more: descriptions of the weather, the strange appearance of trees after a storm, the speaker’s accidentally hitting a downed wire, his parking a car, buying cigarettes, and then, finally, sitting on his lawn, where “Three skunks—a mother and two babies—waddle onto a patch of grass bordering the woods. I do not want to be, but I’m afraid of them, so I put out my cigarette in the grass and go back in.” (Yes we’re back to the skunks) The poem, devoting its attentions as it does on the details of the speaker’s movements and interaction with sensory information, seems to remark on the narrator’s intense, but not self-aware, loneliness, as well as our participation in that awareness.
As Becker’s book moves forward, the poems slowly release their grasp on the tangible, entertaining subjects such as popular culture, cosmology, memory, morality, and religion. Some poems stare unnervingly hard at how others narrativize as they converse with one another; “Sangria,” for example, centers on a group of young people who are “DYING to get comfortable,” and whose “physical inequalities start to glare across the table” as they argue over who is the “cow.” Becker’s speaker finds morality in one boy’s interaction with his fellow “physically inequal” girlfriend:
Time for dessert now, Fatty, he says to his girlfriend, the skinny one.
And the kindness with which he says this forgives everyone, all of us; cleans
Although I find the body-negativity difficult to swallow, there’s something inherently comical (satirical?) about Becker’s depiction of the speaker’s need to criticize and make sense of experience. He wants us to look twice, to consider the point of view and its relative reliability. Through what frame does this speaker see and why? Who tells him to look at the world in this way? How are you, Reader, reading this speaker?
The book comes full circle with “Episode 1—Pilot,” which opens the final section and responds to the opening poem. It reads:
Every night before bed a noose is hung in the corner.
Ultimately, Becker isn’t trying to depress you, but to impress upon you the comic relief inherent in an awareness of the double-sidedness of shame—all while trying to capture the mutability of interpretations. He hybridizes the prose poem form with the diary entry in a heretofore unmatched quest to understand how we put our experiences to words, and how narrative both fails us and somehow succeeds. The result is a collection whose multidimensional pieces invite a new experience with every read.