Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death by Sandy McIntosh
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2007)
List poems, poetry review poems, invented musical instrument poems--Sandy McIntosh’s Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death is playful and humorous. Even the title itself is unique in the poetry world--it sounds more like a gimmick than a poetry title, and what’s funny is that the actual poem dedicated to the forty-nine ways only contains 29 improbable ways with the last way listed as “Make a list like this, but don’t stop.” These poems contain often surreal elements, such as a description of an octuba, “a weird musical instrument / it requires eight strong men / and women to play it / Its music / is basso profundo in extremes,” yet alongside of these images/ideas, we get references to real people. Eileen Tabios shows up at least twice, and Burt Kimmelman and Thomas Fink also show up. Granted, they often show up in humorous contexts, such as a review of a fictional book of Eileen Tabios titled Intestines; still, this combination of the surreal and real create interesting juxtapositions and blur the line between reality and fiction.
Take, for example, “Insignificant Meetings with Remarkable Men.” This poem contains a list of seventeen meetings with famous men most of whom lived in the last 100 years. The question right away is are these real or spoof meetings. Because of McIntosh’s time, we must assume they are spoof meetings, and the last one seems to suggest that’s correct, for in that one, McIntosh meets another version of himself (a dangerous stud). So, are these commentary on the historical people? Are these commentary on meeting “remarkable” people? Are these commentary on our perceptions of the remarkable in others? With Eisenhower, the poet tells us:
My father knew General Eisenhower. I was three or four.
He took me to meet the ex-president during half time
at a Colgate vs Army football game. “How are you, my
boy?” Eisenhower asked, patting my head. “I have to
wee-wee,” I supposedly answered. He bent down and
supposedly confided, “I do, too.”
The poet tells us this with a straight face, but the content suggests that this meeting is a fiction. Still, we get a good amount of information, and such an actual event could have happened. What does it tell us about Eisenhower? Nothing really. It’s not remarkable, but it’s human. Is this McIntosh suggesting that the remarkable is based on situation. He could have had some remarkable encounter, but he has a fairly typical one. While the other men vary in their levels of renown, the meetings are similar. We want the poet to have at least one great meeting, but they all seem like minor let downs. Overall, the small stories presented as poetry also bring up interesting questions about what McIntosh thinks of poetic form. He provides some commentary on that topic in the section titled “Essential Inventories.”
In that section, both poems deal with the idea of poetic form. The first poems is “Partial Inventory of List Poems Not Included In This Volume.” The poem fits the description exactly, with the individual lines just being descriptions of poems.
8. Body Parts Sorted by Spiritual Merit
9. Machines that Reduce Objects to Their Actual Size
10. Four Hundred Fifty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death
11. Fossil Forms of Thought
12. The Twelve Secrets of Successful Polygamists
This list is the poem, but each item of the list seems to spin off new poems not written, except as the reader imagines what such a poem would be. The question here about what poetry is seems to rely heavily on the reader. For instance, does McIntosh consider this piece a poem or just a list? I’m assuming it’s a poem, but that’s mostly because it’s in a poetry book and I have a wide concept of what makes a poem a poem. Essentially, the works in this book seem to comment on what constitutes poetry by providing lists like these but also references to living writers and to dead writers. This book exist as poetry in a world that knows poetry intimately. Outside of that world, is it just a humorous list? The second piece, “Six Intriguing, Newly Discovered Verse Forms I’ve Decided to Share, After All,” brings up similar ideas because it is a list of new verse forms with descriptions but with no sample poems. McIntosh is commenting on the practice of poetry, i.e. he’s providing meta-commentary. This meta-commentary or even spoof commentary actual seems to open the door to new experiments. In other words, is this a case in which the spoof can turn real?
Whatever answers the reader comes up with to these questions, the book is fascinating and humorous. When I started it, I could not put it down until I finished. I wanted to see what other interesting experiments McIntosh would throw at us.
William Allegrezza is the editor of Moria Poetry and author of numerous poetry collections, which can be seen on the left-hand column of his blog.