Tom, Dick and Mitrofan

Isa the Truck Named Isadore, Amanda Nadelberg
[94pp, $14.95, Slope Editions]

At first glance this collection seems to promise good scary fun; a decapitated Barbie stares out from the cover with an eerie fixed smile, surrounded by orange flowers, impaled on one of the stalks. Open up and the modern, sleek impression is carried through with short, beat-influenced lines that focus on people and places with the friendly enthusiasm of Frank O'Hara, and phrases like '...For years I've been / keeping a tally of my showers...' echo Chuck Palahniuk's neurotic prose. The collection contains poems all, apparently, given the names of people, although a glance through the contents page ups the kookiness factor considerably with the choice of names: Blodwen, Deforest, Mitrofan, Ughtred, anyone? The introduction by Lisa Jarnot, who judged the 2006 Slope Editions Book Prize and thus gave Nadelberg the chance of publication, lays out the approach of these poems succinctly:

     Someone is speaking to you. All those people who you ride with on
     the subway, who you stand in line with at the supermarket in the afternoon.
     Maybe they have names like this. Maybe you will find yourself here, or
     your neighbours, or the people you love.

Aside from the smile it gave me to think of which passer-by today might have been called 'Ughtred', this description highlights an immediately prominent aspect of Nadelberg's poetry; its prime concern is with 'the people you love'. If strangers appear, they're ones you'll probably love too. Sometimes this works well with her chosen style, as in the poem 'Bean':

     Inside this small
     place I can
     love you. Let me
     wash your hair in
     the bathroom sink and
     make you a glass
     of water with many
     cubes I promise they
     will fit...

In moments like these, where intimacy emerges from the confinement of the domestic settings, the short lines and sudden breaks are certainly effective, as in the opening few lines, but this technique is used far too much, and becomes very wearing. Of these sixty-three poems, the vast majority are made up of lines between one and seven words long, with an end-stopped line occurring every twenty or thirty lines. In many cases these jolts are disruptive without adding much to the poetry, giving it a 'stop-start' feeling.

If by now you're thinking that this sounds a bit far from Barbie-head territory, you'd be right. Despite the style, a lot of the poems are, well, a bit 'cosy' for my liking. Nadelberg can express affection effectively, if in a slightly twee manner, but she doesn't manage negativity as well. A good example is 'Ella', which at first seems to show Nadelberg getting some teeth out:

     By the time you get this the cat
     will have been dead one week.
     I am sorry. I was on the hills I
     had brought a picnic for myself

The deadpan delivery accentuates an image that definitely tickled me; the childlike narrator goes for a picnic, precipitating the death of someone else's cat by taking the slow road, which turns out to be blocked with snow.

     The wall was so thick and
     tall. I was stuck there it
     snowed for four days and
     no one came, everyone
     must have gone the other way.

The childlike delivery has developed into a childish helplessness and sorrow, well portrayed in the last line but I don't find that Nadelberg's approach makes much sense. She describes approaching a 'wall of snow, like in a cartoon / where the rain is on one side of / the street and not the other'. Well, if 'not the other', why not turn round? If this is because of the narrator's childish lack of initiative, her need for someone to come along the road and help her, then I think the poem's attitude is too rose-tinted. It is effective in making the reader share that sense of abandonment, but this has arisen with a degree of choice, at the price of her responsibilities. While reading the collection I began to wonder whether Nadelberg truly has the patience and capacity for forgiveness of a saint, or whether she's being a touch disingenuous. Certainly if one of my friends let my pet die because they stood on a road for four days not knowing what to do, my thoughts would not have been on how charmingly immature they were. It seems significant that where Jarnot talks about the 'frailties and foibles' of the characters in the introduction, she makes no mention of 'faults', or, heaven forbid, 'failings'. Isn't knowledge of these an important part of love for another person? Certainly to love my friends I don't need to gloss over their weaknesses, and I know they don't overlook mine. Perhaps those of a sunnier disposition would get more out of this (provided they don't mind the sometimes juddery flow), for me it seems that where I see 'head on spike', Nadelberg has been thinking 'Barbie plus flowers', which adds up to a rather sugary mixture.  

     Nicholas Hunt 2006