Big Table Publishing, 2009 $10
Reviewed by Alex McRae, Annie Clarkson and Richard Kemp
There are over 35 poems in Prepare to Crash—a good deal more than there are in most pamphlets—but it doesn’t feel too dense, partly because of the clean layout and the spare, casual style of the poems. Casey Quinn’s poetry is described in the pamphlet’s introduction as being like “Billy Collins, William Carlos Williams, and ee cummings having a beer on the back deck”, which I thought summed it up well. The poems are often fairly brief, and they’re economical in their use of language, with short, unpunctuated lines and few adjectives. There’s a lovely lightness of touch in poems like ‘postal service laws’, which is short enough to quote in full:
to be sent
in the mail
or the letter
written to you
when i was
in a bad mood.
Even though it’s short, the style fits the subject matter—a stilted, shamefaced apology—and the rhyming sounds of “meant/sent” and “letter/written” give the poem a strong sense of internal cohesion.
Other short pieces also have satisfying punchlines—in ‘circle of progress’, there’s a witty description of how the rotary phone has given way to innovation after innovation, and eventually to an iPhone “with an app / that makes it work/ exactly/ like/ a rotary.”
As well as the humour, there’s often a philosophical tone. Lots of them capture fleeting, self-contained moments in time, such as ‘hot summer day’, which describes a day “where sweat/ comes easy” and the poet wonders whether the weather will ever get cooler, prompting a response from his oscillating fan, which
to the left
and to the right
telling me no.
In ‘a six pack’, there’s a lovely description of a couple on a short roadtrip: a weekend drive to pick up drinks and food “on an old/ worn road/ in North Carolina”. The poem is steeped with American nostalgia, like the classic country music that the couple are listening to in the car:
Johnny Cash is singing
Jackson with June
and my wife
is looking out
at the corn fields we pass
windows are down
in my jeep cherokee
The mood created is one of understated, low-key pleasure at the freedom of the moment—driving in warm sun, with dogs asleep on the backseat of the car—and the poet ends by stating simply “life/ is good”. In ‘tether’, however, the things that seemed to make him happy in ‘a six pack’: “you [. . .]/ these two dogs/ and a decade/ old jeep” are presented as restrictive ties.
This collection is extremely satisfying to read, with its mix of humour and philosophy. I would recommend it as an enjoyable change of pace from longer, denser poetry.
These texts appear simple. They are stripped down, and use plain language. There’s nothing fancy at work here, no extended metaphor—in fact little metaphor at all, but rather a straightforward observational approach to life. Some of them are insights or realisations occurring on a drive to work or sitting in the garden. There are brief memories of a father, for instance, thoughts about the family dog, simple philosophies about a person’s place in life. It sounds as though there’s little substance, but actually there is a resonating power with almost every poem and an accumulative strength to the collection.
In fact, the title, Prepare to Crash seems perfect, almost the ‘calm before the storm’ for want of a better cliché, or that quiet moment of realisation before a car crashes into a road sign (the image on the front of the chapbook is a totalled car wrapped around a railroad crossing sign).
A quiet ironic humour is also at work, not flashy or overstated, but that wry kind of humour people have about difficult realisations: that a wife might love the dog more than her husband; that a man might want to climb under the bed and hide from a storm; that one is growing old. Many of these poems might make you smile. Others will have you nodding your head, and certainly they’ll set you thinking.
My favourite poems were ‘testing my worth weekly’ where the poet puts himself out with the garbage, and ‘today as everyday’ where his drive to work is different in a tiny way for the first time in five years. Their simplicity hides a much deeper set of thoughts and meanings, and for me this is what poetry is about.
Obviously a fan of Charles Bukowski, Quinn presents a set of mainly short poems which describe his American life. The title poem gives a taste of the whole, this being its ending:
and when you have
no more fuel left to burn
your landing gear
Being entertaining does not stop the poet from being poignant—here is part of ‘she takes pictures’:
all that is there
when she develops the film
are the busted shells
of the living
the drained fools
beat down, bankrupt
on the way home from work.
The poems are accessible, easy to pick up and read, and have a relaxed feel about them. I’m not always sure about the often seemingly arbitrary line breaks, or his strategy of having included some poems that feel quite slight observations; in places the pamphlet feels almost like a diary. More editing back would have highlighted the stronger work. That said, the whole style of the collection is conversational and makes you feel close to understanding the atmosphere of the smaller American town, and the author’s take on life.
Quinn’s work is likable and occasionally alludes to philosophical themes, but his main focus is his direct relating of his feelings/thoughts in an honest, non-literary way—although that is still a literary way. I would guess it would matter to Quinn, for example, that the reader enjoyed these poems, rather than that he or she were to find them ‘literary’. I did enjoy them. Recommended.