Book Review

Over the past thirty years, Mark Halliday has written books equally funny and serious: poems that say serious things through humor, while also just being, quite simply, funny. His latest collection, Losers Dream On, is very much in keeping with that style, even as his sensibility has matured, and his attitude towards certain key themes—family relationships, the passing of time, the pain of unrequited desire—has darkened.

Halliday writes in a speaking voice that sounds effortless; there is a breeziness to these poems that could be mistaken for flippancy. But his lines are always driven by a strong rhythm, so that they never lack direction. Losers Dream On alternates between conversational free verse and playful genre experiments. The latter are some of the highlights in the book: they reveal the comic potential of genres that use language without humor or imagination. For example, “Index to Hamaday: A Questionable Life” mines the kinds of startling juxtapositions that the index form generates by accident.

Addicted to salted cashews,   64
Apologizes to two women in past,     55
Baffled by human acquiescence in gush of time,       49
Complacently accepts middle-class white male privilege,      56
Considerably less funny than thinks,  66
Doubts greatness of Philip Roth,        49

The entries shift wildly from the domestic to the cosmic (and back again), so that the “gush of time” never lands far from the banality of “salted cashews.” Part of the joke is that, unlike a real index, the entries in Halliday’s poem were invented and arranged to create a specific effect. But, of course, real indexes are also the product of human choice. The pleasure of this poem comes from the recognition that Halliday has not supplanted randomness with design, but rather traded one principle of organization for another. Indeed, the real target of his satire, here and throughout the book, is himself. “Yearbook Photo” similarly adopts the voice of a formal apology letter to poke fun at his misplaced ambitions:

We the editors of this year’s Yearbook regret to inform you
that due to certain errors in our production process
the caption under your photo, instead of reading
Most Likely to Achieve Something Original
reads Most Likely to Accumulate Big Boxes of Unpublished Manuscripts
Full of Banal Imaginary Sexual Adventure.

That final phrase—“Banal Imaginary Sexual Adventure”—unfolds like a banner across the line, but the flag droops.

At the same time, Halliday is conscious of the ways irony can become facile in turn. He repeatedly adjusts his attitude within each poem to avoid complacency. “Freedom of Speech” contrasts a protest Halliday attended in the wake of the 2017 presidential inauguration:

While we stood with candles in the chilly evening
two hundred yards from the White House
listening to speakers exhorting us to resist tyranny,
to fight hate with love,
five hundred of us cheering on cue,

with the violence inflicted on an opposition politician in Russia,

Vladimir Kara-Murza lay barely out of a coma in Moscow
with “heavy metals” in his blood,

only to then quickly self-correct: “But ironic juxtaposition is easy.”

In “Almost Dusk,” Halliday appears to make light of his existential dread in a Walmart parking lot:

Far off near Walmart a few old persons moved
very slowly toward bargain prices. There was no story
with a hero. History
and my life and the universe all came to
nothing but this—

The yawning enjambment between “History” and “my life” visually qualifies the self-important notion that the two can be put on the same level. Yet the poem does not deny that one can react with very real dread to the sight of a shopper’s slow, mindless track. Or of endless parking lots:

                                         not only
the lot right in front of Walmart but the larger parking lot
beyond the first lot, all level, almost empty.

The sentence lumbers on, clause by clause, at pains to capture a space that is defined (ironically) by what it lacks.

For all its humor, Losers Dream On is a book haunted by time. Of course, time has long been an important subject to Halliday, but aging has made him apprehend it more seriously. (Halliday is now in his late 60s.) “Chilled” describes a man who long avoided the effects of old age, but who now “gets sudden chills / when everyone else feels the temperature is pleasant.” The poem goes on to describe “his skinny old muscles,” the way he “moans” and “gasps” to get attention (just “like a baby”), until the final line delivers a twist ending: “The year is 2037. His name is Mark.” No matter how much we may laugh at the poet’s self-deprecation, his humor is matched by a pained and painful awareness that what he predicts here will likely come to pass.

Halliday is particularly honest about envy and the way middle age can make one jealous of the young, for these seem (at a distance, at least) to have easier access to their desires. In one poem, he spots two men in their early thirties jogging, and fixates on “their strong legs, bare, rhythmic, hairy in a handsome way.” Their attractiveness leads the poet to imagine their wives and the colleagues they fantasize about at work. The runners belong to a whole world of sexual experience from which he feels sorely cut off. Yet the poem is bracingly free of pettiness and conscious that these speculations risk dissolving into self-pity. While some might use humor as a shield—a deflection or a denial of feeling—in this poet’s capable hands, irony becomes a way of facing up to the sadder experiences of life. Halliday’s sensibility may be tragicomic, but he rarely sounds defeated. Losers Dream On, after all.

About the Reviewer

Florian Gargaillo is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University, where he writes about modern and contemporary poetry. His articles have appeared in such venues as MLQ, Essays in Criticism, The Yale Review, Literary Imagination, and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. He has also reviewed contemporary poetry for Harvard Review, PN Review, and Rain Taxi.