Book Review

At a reading at the University of Arizona two months before the 2016 presidential election, Danniel Schoonebeek read the poem “Archilochos” from his second poetry collection, Trébuchet. He explained he was drawn to the Greek poet from the seventh century BC by a particular dream of democratic citizenship: Archilochos was at once a warrior in the military and an ardent critic of the government. That position seems almost impossible in today’s political climate, full of hot takes that pit unreflective patriotism against flippant, knee-jerk critiques of power. Archilochos refuses that dichotomy, combining a willingness to give his life for his polis with an impulse to test its leaders against his own principles. Trébuchet cuts across the terms of American two-party ideology that have, among other things, left working-class voters to choose between bad options. “Republicans are liberal too I’m afraid,” he writes in “Archilochos,” “and there’s no such thing as a trust fund kid on the battlefield.”

Many books changed overnight on November 8, 2016; many on the left woke up with egg on their face. But Schoonebeek’s Obama-era book seems almost to have anticipated the transition, and its exigency is only more palpable now in 2017. In part this is because the book—with its unique blend of myth-making, parody, and political outrage—seems to have been written from small-town, white, working-class America, written for and to:

the ghosts
of a generation of
drunks & for-hire
rabble rousers
swear in Andrew
Jackson on a 500-
year-old first
edition Oxford
Bible & Rocky
Mountain wood-
ticks skittering
out of his eye-
holes & shaking
their castanets
yes & clucking
their tongues

If his poems lampoon the culture of small-town America, Schoonebeek also writes with a genuine awareness of their grievances and the historical conditions which produced them. The opening poem, “Trébuchet,” is a textbook invocation of the historical avant-garde—he asks readers of the book to “fire it out of a trébuchet at the White House”—but the politics the book espouses are a proletariat-based attack on free market ideology. At times, in fact, the poems seem to offer almost exactly the political frustration many voters felt as they launched Trump “out of a trébuchet at the White House.”

In Trébuchet, however, the frustrations and desires of the white working class are organized not by a narcissistic reality TV star, but by a warrior-poet. Part of the freight of the allusions to Greek poets like Archilochos and Hesiod is an earnest, if wistful, invocation of a culture in which a poet might play a more central and direct role in politics, in which national myth-making could be taken out of the hands of corporate sponsors and given back to individual citizens. This desire to reclaim myth may be part of why roughly half of the poems in the collection turn to fantasy, with horses weaving grass in their fetlocks and a “red woman” prophesying about the fate of the kingdom. Zoë Hitzig, in her incisive review of the book, points to one of the most exciting of such moments, in the poem “Nachtmusik,” in which a mythic romance between a “legendary / backwoods catcaller” and his lost love Anna is reoriented suddenly into the contemporary:

I woke & was ancient
next gutshot

next slack

next saw
the tramps sleeping
in Bank of America

As Hitzig writes, Schoonebeek “takes us from antiquity to the present in a surprising enjambment.” “Bank of America” is seen anew, as cultural and political institution, but also as mythic symbol, perhaps one to be slain.

The invocation of a fantasy world vaguely organized around the symbols and icons of Western medieval society is, of course, also central to the ideology of white nationalist movements being organized on the far right across America and Europe. Would it be possible, instead, to craft such a vision for the left? Part of what is comforting and attractive about the political allegories of fantasy is that they tend to reduce complex issues into simple dichotomies: good and evil, heroes and villains. Could such a model be invoked by the left without abandoning its commitment to broad inclusivity and diversity? Trébuchet does not answer these questions, but its structure invites us to consider them.

Despite the perplexing challenge of its fantasy world, the parts of the collection that remain most compelling for me were the poems that dwelt more centrally in the mode of contemporary realism. These were the poems in which the poet’s anger, humor, and political conviction burned hottest through the surface. In “Russets,” we see the poet harassed by his boss, presumably for a copywriting job:

Your deadline is coming he says                    and guns me down with his finger

Fall it comes like a barricade               and you owe me my language.

Here is a writer deeply tuned to the ironies and idiosyncrasies of the contemporary American idiom. Or in the brilliant poem, “The Likes of You,” the speaker hears a church bell, which is in fact not a church bell but a “hand-me-down guillotine” rung by the priest in the “white trash, tax-frauding / unincorporated village that established you circa 1986.” “Unincorporated”—the fate of municipalities that default on public debt and are forced under the administration of a higher governing body—seems a key term for identifying the precarity and alienation of today’s working class.

If it is difficult to resolve all the pieces that Schoonebeek offers us in this collection, the brightest moments are the kinds you want to share with a friend, read at a bar, shout out at a political rally. Its realist portraits of small-town America recall the indelible work of Philip Levine, or C. D. Wright. Schoonebeek’s brilliant prose project, C’est la guerre, available in excerpts online, provides even more sustained moments of such portraiture. As we continue to barrel into the Trump years, and responses have already begun piling up, Schoonebeek seems like a voice we ought to have heard all along, certainly one to give our attention to now.

About the Reviewer

Sean Pears has lived in Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. His writing and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, NOMAN’s Journal, and other places. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Poetics at SUNY Buffalo.