Book Review

Daniel Tiffany’s new book wears a sandpaper shirt, the title marked in black crayon, smeared. The stanzas on the page look like a row of lying-down Christmas trees waiting to get burned.

During my first reading, at about page thirty-four, I was elsewhere, stopping to say, “I’m in a grotto!” because for me the dwelling place of the reading resembled Walter Scott’s description of a cave behind a waterfall—Scott’s bandit-cave in the novel Old Mortality. The thickened silence had the same mysterious ambience of an actual grotto: Hamilton Pool in my Hill Country. But the grotto produced by Tiffany’s poem, very small, was in the middle of my forehead. And I was looking out its opening at the poem’s “chain of predicaments,” as Tiffany likes to say, seeing them through a curtain of falling water.

How did that happen? Through Tiffany’s braiding of the utterance flow. I believe it was partly the result of a typo-geographical effect. I’d better explain.

The poem’s excess is both generated and concentrated by the rule of the cinquain. Each stanza of five short lines has the syllabic count 2,4,6,8,2; left alignment suggesting the picture of those discarded trees (litter, flocking, tinsel); unrhymed, except when its voice registers being infected by something like a nursey earworm (sad toy hidden in the branches). The familiar practice of writing—and speaking—tanka or haiku-influenced syllabics in English will make use of line-end stops, the line-length turns of sensation made complete at Basho’s plop. Japonaiserie—like Van Gogh’s oil copies of the Hiroshige woodblocks, brilliant emblems of the long European ripple effect after 1858.

How do you speak this poem? Perhaps a difficulty at first. Tiffany’s work is very much spoken. The generative fire of Cry Baby Mystic involves, not exclusively—there’s more than just craft going on—but importantly, the use of enjambment.

They’ve lost
none of their charm.
The novice detective’s
a total stranger, his question
is not

to the murder.
It should be clear by now
what he has hanging between his
legs, a

good piece
of eating stuff
(“seafood” as Navy meat
of this grade is called) Have you not
eyes for

the re-
cently erased?
Approaching truth as if
it were a strange dog I try to

how to
use my upscale
sentences. God makes raw
the devil cooks, three stars if you
hit the

wonderful. . .

The motive wraps around line ends and sometimes across several stanzas. Do you pause? Maybe. Should you rock back and forth while declaiming? And squint? Absurd. What’s the performative path?

Because there’s that keyhole between each stanza—the image is named and reiterated as well as graphically embodied—you lean into the aperture, 2 syllables. The view of the linguistic body expands, 4-6-8 syllables. You lean back again, 2. Depending on the sensory content of the stanza and the height of the door while peeping at the predicaments, one’s upturned back end is occasionally vulnerable to the dark of the spooky corridor. (Look both ways!) Then you move on, sometimes quickly, to the next door.

my fingers they’re
mine but someone else seems
to be using them. Count to ten
and it’ll

all be
over. Maybe
those aren’t her eyes—maybe
it’s just her mouth that looks so wet
from here.

If you don’t find the path yourself, listening to the poet speak this work will immediately show the way (the publisher sponsored a reading which is available on YouTube, where Tiffany’s reading starts at 50:20). His recital lights the candle of the poem. And now I ask you, is there a difference between the votive and the chemical candle? Which brings me to Michael Faraday.

The Fantascope was developed after Faraday constructed a device to examine an optical phenomenon, the illusion of motion when looking at a series of images through apertures on a spinning cardboard disc. Faraday’s philosophical toy excited the sensorimotor basis of visual scene processing. When Tiffany’s miniature stanzas get “up to speed,” an animated prospect will appear through the flashing keyhole.

So much for the gadget. The poem “hovers” like a weather system around the figure of Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-sometime after 1438). About the mystic, Margery the Weeper and her unendurable compassion, I’m not qualified to say much. But a fascinating textual note: we possess one manuscript of her book, an early 15th century copy, discovered in 1934 after someone in Derbyshire squashed a ping-pong ball during a game, leading to a search for more balls in a rotting cabinet with a pile of leather-bound books. (The fate of our unnamed matriarchs!) Among that horsey company of players were two scholars employed at the Victoria and Albert Museum where the copy was identified by medievalist Hope Emily Allen.

A sample from The Book of Margery Kempe, chapter seventy-two:

Sche spak also wt many Ankrys and schewed hem hyr manr of leuyng & swech grace as the holy gost of hys goodnesse wrowt in hyr mende and in hyr sowle as her wytt wold fuyn hyr to exprssyn it.

It’s like reading a linguistic ice-core sample taken from not too great a time depth.

Cry Baby Mystic puts us into a time spiral, frequently in the company of bandits:

with all
my friends here, Eye
Winker, Penny Wipe, Lick
Pan, Nose Smeller, Mouth Eater, Chin

Bones may
be dropped from great
heights to break them open
on the slopes of Mount Quarentyne. . . 

And when we wander near the specious present moment, Giant Robot makes an appearance, menacing birds are seen flocking from a systems-analysis-Hitchcock standpoint, and Natalie Wood checks her lipstick by looking at her reflection in the silverware.

In this eighty-eight-page lyric, abraded by passions, from the jury-pool we of the opening to the abject creature on trial at the end, liquid voices flicker with illumination.

About the Reviewer

Gray Palmer is a Los Angeles-based playwright, performer, and critic, affiliated with the long-established poetic theater collective Padua Playwrights. His plays have been published in The Wax Paper and by Padua Press. His theater journalism is available in the archive of Stage Raw.