Book Review

Reading Ben Purkert’s debut collection of poetry, For the Love of Endings, I can’t help but to imagine a scene where a brokenhearted man, recently out of a relationship, drinks a glass of Clos du Bois chardonnay at the Olive Garden in Times Square with a good friend as he unfurls his feelings about his ex. Perhaps the relationship has been over for a few weeks, enough time for some clarity and acceptance to wade into his thoughts, but there’s still an underlying rawness, tinged with anger, to meander into the conversation. The server comes over with a Coca-Cola on the house, along with a refresh of never-ending breadsticks. The sad man looks out to the stars, obscured by the New York City lights, and wonders what his ex is doing.

It’s definitely a specific image, but Purkert’s voice of a love-hurt space cadet, drifting in the hyper-capitalist supermarket, demands that. He has written an exciting, weird, and weirdly exciting book. In just a single poem, “Remaining on Point,” and throughout the book, he is at home with explicit twenty-first century capitalism: from “the world shares only one word / & that’s Coca-Cola”; to invocations to an ex, “Dear ex, are you still there? / On the other line? All I know is please / remove your heels before flooding my memory”; to meditations on nature, “Isn’t it something, spinning all day? Isn’t the earth / in charge of us never drifting too far?” In other hands, this might be like giving a small child some unsupervised free time and a BIC lighter, but Purkert manages to keep a controlled flame going without burning the house to the ground.

Refreshingly, reading Purkert doesn’t seem to be an exercise in crisscrossing and connecting major poetic influences back to his work, although he does select an epigraph from Mary Ruefle: “In life, the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the / number of endings.” Instead, at his most vivid, his voice and imagery offer connections outside of poetry—like to cinema and prose.

In “The Past Is the Present Only Colder,” Purkert writes:

At night, everything feels. Even a river
feels its way through the woods, mumbling.
Slight edge in its voice. Enough to pry
the sky open through a crack, then light through
the haze.

Here, like many of his poems, nature is off-kilter, not mischievous or malevolent, but just cinematically weird. Imagine a David Lynchian, Blue Velvet discovery of an ear in an open field kind of weird. In his poem “If I Shut My Eyes, What Other Doors in Me Fly Open,” Purkert matter-of-factly states, “I’d like to meet my bones. / I’d strew them on a Minnie Mouse / beach blanket near the water— / her red dress, eyelashes peeking through / my rib cage.” Like Lynch, Purkert balances the banal, in this case a Minnie Mouse blanket, with the macabre—the frightful idea of arranging one’s bones against it.

Later in “The Past is the Present Only Colder” he says, “All movies end in tragedy, / names leaping off the screen.” In this second invocation of cinema in the poem, Purkert hits multiple registers and somehow makes them work—sad, detached, and interested in violence. Purkert isn’t obsessed with violence, but he does invoke it in his poems effectively to nudge it in a new direction. “I want you / exploding like a bridge.” he states in “Today Is Work,” a particularly cinematic image.

This voice’s influence extends beyond cinema as well. In “Natural Intelligence,” there is a coolness to the tone that invokes postmodern novelists at times:

The plural of anything is bound to be sharper:
countless birds spelling V above my head.
Where they land, the earth must slightly compress,
hardening under their cool weight.
Wing-shadows held against their breasts.
Each bird only tries to be
what it is, & people call this intelligence.

It’s cool, crisp, and slightly unnatural like air conditioning, just as some have described Don DeLillo’s prose. That said, should this cool voice be consistent throughout, its detached irony would become tedious. Instead, Purkert modulates its use and gives an earnest jab to the gut from time to time, like in the titular poem, “For the Love of Endings,” where he writes, “When I’m gone, / the thing I’ll miss is missing, is describing the world I miss.”

The excellent second section concerns itself mostly with references to an ex, whether a straight address—“I’m hardly alone— / like most men, I’ll gaze / at anything to avoid looking / inward” —in “Dear Ex,” or the more abstract note he strikes in “Running Into the Ex,” describing the unexpected run-in between a cloud and a tree: “Let’s fly says the tree / Into what says the cloud.” In the course of describing online dating, hotel sex, or just the excruciating moment of separation between two people, Purkert is able to mine human tragic experience without being weighed down by mawkish sentimentality that usually comes with this territory. It enables him to offer hard-won, weary wisdom in “Online Match,” where he closes strongly with, “If you grow apart, be the bigger person by an inch.”

When he’s at his strongest as a poet, Purkert is at his weakest as a human. In some ways this invokes the Instagram-ready phrase, “vulnerability is a strength” (#growth), but his book For the Love of Endings is far more nuanced than that. It’s like hearing out your friend who needs to tell you about that ex who cascades across his or her memory, about how the sky disintegrates the longer you stare at it, and how one’s relation to truth can only be measured by their proximity to pain. It’s this persistent, almost comical approach to diving recklessly headfirst to mine our most troublesome human experiences that propels this excitingly strange book and makes it such a compelling debut.


About the Reviewer

Dan Varley’s essays on literature and pop culture have appeared in the American Interest and Mockingbird. He is working on a chapbook of poems and lives in Brooklyn.