Book Review

When Jacques Lacan wrote, “To be an obsessional means to find oneself caught in a mechanism, in a trap increasingly demanding and endless,” Dan Magers, while scribing Spiritual Grave Year, must have conjured only silver linings. In his latest collection, a chapbook-cum-hallucination aptly shaped like an album cover, Magers streaks his pages with sonically surreal riffs—riffs which often hit harder than the jukebox tracks to which they lend reference. Through compulsive anaphora and lines that reappear with incantatious insistence, this book reads like a mixtape sounds––a mixtape produced by a delirious DJ who is hyperaware of the limitations of taste. Yet it is through such taste that Magers addresses the manifold memories embedded in song, what it means to meld mediums, and how best to approach “being pulled into a great cultural movement.”

Told from the perspective of a moody, elusive narrator who “maybe / [doesn’t] even really like music. Just the absence of silence,” Spiritual Grave Year is a testament to the transcendent nature of sound. Replete with more album allusions than a Pitchfork review, Magers imbues his new effort with the same pop-referential wit that begat its predecessor, 2012’s Partyknife (Birds, LLC), which Thurston Moore described as “just as good as starting a band.” For those who have not gone under the -knife, its arc falls somewhere between “I beat Halo with my project management skills” and “I wanted to be high, but now I’m trapped in my life.” This leaves readers wondering: will Magers’s follow-up function as a sequel to Partyknife, or will it chart its own waters? Even the poet must have entertained both ideas, as the second of his titular poems, “Spiritual Grave Year,” is penned with an erstwhile essence, the prodigal narrator returning in decadent, discrepant glory:

If your therapist could also hear your thoughts ––
would that scare you?

Or would you like it?

As a talented writer on mushrooms,
I feel like I can convey the beauty of the multiplicity of the world.

I feel like I have reached that ability.

My girlfriend complained about my sweaty body
until I lost my erection.

Then we broke up.

When I get drunk, I wag my finger at whom I’m talking to,
like I don’t want no scrubs.

Invoking the spirit of a maladjusted friend whispering jokes into your ear at a funeral, Magers leaves but two questions to be asked: One, was that a TLC reference? And two, was this a B-side which never made the Partyknife LP? Although that answer is indeterminate, the poet, who is “silly at heart and it shows,” proves that he is more than just dirty jokes and vacuous hipster ethos. Abandoning his trademark one-liners early in the book, Magers matriculates through the remaining pages via tonal and formal shifts, jumping from the lyric to the micro-essay. In this mode, he includes several fan fiction fantasies, as well as two pieces devoted to the same Full House episode. Although these prompts are humorous in theory, in execution they are more dadaist, and parade the poet’s droll MO. Take this portion of “The History of Consciousness,” in which Magers counters his narrator’s penchant for whimsy with shrewd self-awareness, throwing punches at contemporary lit culture, despite being part of it:

And the idea of each new critic knowing more than the last, but with the tacit
understanding that each new critic is less great than the one that came before.
Like when you hear of someone and you think ‘oh I think I have heard of her.’
Upon which specific experience are you drawing?

It is through this brand of acuity that the poet builds toward Spiritual Grave Year’s climactic end point, the eleven-page “Dawn of the Video Era,” a mash-up of an epic which reads, formally, like sections of Graham Foust’s To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems. In place of familiar one-page hit singles, we are presented with a stream-of-consciousness account of all things musically vital––a breakdown of Beatles tracks, an examination of oldies artists, history lessons on MTV, and the stark, often poignant memories that accompany Magers’s “music of your life collection”:

Debbie Gibson “Only in My Dreams” music video

Debbie Gibson “Only in My Dreams” performance on Japanese television

each weak heart reaches to touch the stage lights overhead

on tops of trees touch the sun

sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed, and she was wearing jeans with a hole at the knee, and I thought her pink underwear was peaking from her jeans, but it wasn’t. Then I realized she was crying as she was trying to answer my question, all teared up.

While such pacing, at times, leaves his readers wondering in what state they should be when digesting these poems, Magers attaches emotional reference points with such precision that it feels as though his lapses in clarity, interspersed with hazy nostalgia, prove authentic and necessary. That said, this opus is not without its flaws, as some of Magers’s allusions are more jejune than anticipated. Are we to believe that such edgy poems arose from The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” from Aqua’s “Barbie Girl?” Are these actually Magers’s favorite songs, or do they represent those songs which we hear with such frequency that they, à la repetitive radio play, become our favorite songs?

Regardless of the intent of its discography, Spiritual Grave Year signifies Magers’s maturation as a poet. A bricolage of sound, this book is a departure in form, yes, but more importantly it is a progression of content, for the lo-fi, garage rock lyricism of Partyknife has procured a smoother PA system––one which amplifies and elucidates the anxiety-ridden insights of a musician trapped in a poet’s body. Through humor and sincerity, stitched together with painfully lurid moments, Dan Magers provides “a vision of the future” that satisfies the needs of its audience: one that wants to sing along with poetry––and perhaps one that enjoyed Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s.

About the Reviewer

Scott Wordsman holds an MFA from William Paterson University, where he is now an adjunct professor of English. Scott’s poems appear or will appear in THRUSH, Forklift / Ohio, BlazeVOX, Slipstream, Main Street Rag, and others. He is a Best of the Net 2016 nominee.