Book Review

I’ll begin my review with this somewhat embarrassing disclosure: In recent years, I’ve been basically a TV show illiterate, never having watched popular series such as The Killing, The Good Place, The Real World, Westworld, Game of Thrones, or Madmen. Why does this matter? Not keeping up with American TV programs can limit one’s repertoire for small talk when in conversation with family, friends, neighbors, new acquaintances, coworkers—i.e., with many of one’s fellow Americans. It can also limit one’s avenues for processing some of the conflicts, anxieties, and cultural values swirling around America in the present moment. It can even limit one’s appreciation of an innovative book of poetry such as the one under consideration here. Emma Winsor Wood, author of The Real World, is someone who is conversant with television. And the kind of televised entertainment that interests her in this book—mostly shows with continuing storylines that develop across seasons—makes the book’s disjunctive, aphoristic responses to what’s on TV both strange and fascinating. And, for the most part, very funny.

The names of the first four programs I mentioned serve as section titles for Wood’s book, and these, along with two other sections entitled “Commercial Break” and “Saturday Cartoons,” provide The Real World with an organizational frame that lends an overall coherence and continuity to a book whose serial poems thrive on incongruity and discontinuity. The tensions between order and disorder (in two sections poems are even further divided into episodes or seasons) sets up a sort of rivalry between the comic and the serious, between the author and her speakers, between what’s outside the book and what’s in it. The gaps provide Wood with ample grounds for trenchant social critique and inventive satire.

For readers like me who are unfamiliar with one or more of the source programs, a quick internet search can provide a baseline for contemplating what Wood’s text may or may not be skewering. Perhaps more important than knowing the plot lines of the actual shows is knowing that Wood is the editor of Stone Soup Magazine, a publication for works by children under thirteen. If one recalls how children delight in absurd juxtapositions, rule breaking, the capsizing of the “real,” one might begin to understand the ways Wood’s text makes sense by playing up non-sense. And perhaps, given the clash between human and humanoid that is the subject of TV’s Westworld—also the title of the final and most serious section in Wood’s book—one might go even further and consider reading the book’s middle sections metaironically, as if coming from machines programmed to sound like poets. “Quiet,” Wood has the speaker say in one poem, “the algorithm is trying to think.” Reading the poems as if they are machine-generated can help account for why the poems sometimes feel logically and tonally “off,” as if they come from bots that algorithmically draw on databases without really understanding what they are saying. The irony here is that even if considered as AI produced lines, they do make poetic sense, in effect foreshadowing an eventual collapse of distinctions between the human and the nonhuman, between the real and the unreal, between technology and art:

Aren’t many alive and unnecessarily?

The not-man with the big budget

shoehorns a metatextual game

into a serious lesson. The stone constitution

is a study in suffering. Paper can’t metaphor

any longer. They own. We die.

Every human is inhuman.

This dear liturgy though!

On the other hand, one could read a segment such as the following as simply coming from a jaded, sardonic, media-savvy human for whom “the world is too much with us, late and soon” (Wordsworth):

Where does it all come from?

Windows, dead girls, cigarettes.

Cold, dead flowers in the dry rain . . .

Slaughter isn’t murder, but why not?

Noisy jackhammers. A fast, dark door. Dusty lights…

The shore travels far into the . . . something something-scape.

An old captain drowns very calmly, and so on.

This is a true story. It was on the news.

My point here is that readers could have some fun trying to characterize who they think is speaking at different moments in the text. But whoever the elusive, shifty speakers are, sentient or not, Wood, the “real” poet, the actual programmer, is the one supplying us with penetrating cultural critiques that can make one both laugh and cringe at the same time:

Most art is never displayed

The rich want to buy expected value

A growing body of research suggests you’re nobody until you’re branded

The cow is easily identifiable in the field

Lest so on the plate

This is an ongoing process

The rest is a product of mental arithmetic

Part of The Real World’s success is that it is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, I would argue that it manages to successfully address some sticky existential and ethical questions because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is more interested in playfulness rather than lengthy elaboration. It eschews lyric intensity and a lyric “I” protagonist in favor of deadpan speakers whose semi-detached aphoristic one-liners sting. (The poems with stanzas essentially have the same effect.) And, as “Cold Open,” the book’s short first section, implies, The Real World wants to solicit an active involvement on the part of the reader. While a “cold open” refers to a film technique for starting a program at a dramatic high point to hook the viewer, Wood’s text works more along the lines of cold calling, where a salesperson calls people at random to offer them a product or a service:

By serendipity alone, I am contacting you with a business suggestion

I am a writer of books

I deal in gold exportation

We are currently looking to fill a vacancy

To go after the emotional jugular

So to speak

We would be thrilled to see you joining our professional team

Certainly “Cold Open” puts itself and the sections that follow smack into the middle of media manipulation on behalf of the capitalistic enterprise. It also anticipates how subsequent poems exhibit a cold matter-of-factness that stems from the book’s method of employing a kind of montage that often reads like a list. (The space between lines reinforces this effect.) Yet if The Real World’s poems operate without the emotional affect one expects from the lyric, “Cold Open” can be read as inviting readers to supply what is missing. I would say on behalf of this fine collection of poems, it is a job well worth undertaking.

About the Reviewer

Catherine Imbriglio is the author of two books of poetry, Parts of the Mass (Burning Deck), which received the Norma Farber First Book Award, and Intimacy (Center for Literary Publishing), which received the Colorado Prize. She is a senior editor in poetry for Tupelo Quarterly.