The Quality of Escape
A Review of Thomas David Lisk’s Aroma Terrapin
(Mellen Poetry Press, 2003, $39.95, Hardcover, 0-7734-3457-7)
Lisk’s debut collection is a sneaky one. It presents itself with a humble silliness: the title itself — a playful version of “aroma therapy” — is giddy, and the cover art, done in a primitive, child-like style (presumably by a family member — Corrie A. Lisk-Hurst), is a terrapin shell — very straight forward. His picture on the back is big and friendly, completely approachable — no pensive scowl or meditative hand posturing — and his work, you’ll read in the blurb beneath his photo, has appeared in “many little magazines and newspapers.” But while the packaging does represent a certain aspect of Lisk’s work — a self-effacing levity that pervades many of the poems — it is perhaps intentionally misleading. The poems in this collection are at once buoyant and dense, and it is the light, almost bawdy music Lisk sets them to that makes their impact so surprising and permanent. With its manipulation of traditional form, its lyric repetition of associative leaps, and its dissonant combination of humorous sexuality and lamenting emptiness, Aroma Terrapin is an utterly original and necessary work.
In “A Race,” one of several prose poems in Aroma Terrapin, Lisk seems to write an apology for his misleading packaging. The very fact that Lisk has an apology, albeit a subtle one, puts him in a certain category. In any case, this poem orients the reader as much as any of these poems are willing to, displaying the logos a traditional apology requires: it is about a fair or a fair-like event (there are tents and booths) at which “the captain” — a presumably odd character (the affluent crowd is gossiping about him) — has entered some sort of event (a mule race we are forced to presume) that has the familiar rhetoric of a potato-sack race or some other picnic contest. So the setting and characters have a Twain-like familiarity. The poem begins: “At the espresso tent erstwhile religionists examined the / beef collage and gossiped about the captain and his mule” (1–2). Like Ashbery, Lisk often employs an easy, narrative tone in order to smuggle into a poem his seemingly over-the-top associations. But these associations, as in Ashbery (I have “The Mandrill on the Turnpike” in mind), often set up a dichotomy between the believers and non-believers, the traditionalists and the progressive pranksters. In the very first sentence of “A Race,” Lisk pits “the captain” (who, we find out, is actually a major) against “the religionists” (who, we find out, are uncomfortably rich). The surprising thing about Lisk’s dichotomies is that they are not political (not that Ashbery’s are, but Lisk’s feign to be and then turn out not to be). The reader sympathizes with everyone in some way. Even the religionists can appreciate a good beef collage — i.e. they are not against progressive art wholesale (though maybe they would hate a tofu collage).
This sort of universal sympathy is both a cornerstone of Lisk’s style and a cornerstone of his apology for that style. The genius of Lisk’s work is that he can do both at once. He has created a voice, a tone, a blend of diction that lets him be formal and chaotic, associative and narrative, that lets him always be himself and an apology for himself. We’ve all been in serious situations where we try to stop laughing and laugh even harder or silly situations where we cry. The rhetoric of those moments is the rhetoric of Aroma Terrapin. One major way in which “A Race” is representative of this rhetoric is its form. It is a prose poem — supposedly bare of many of the formal aspects of typical stanzaic verse. However, as virtually all of Lisk’s poems do, it employs an almost ascetic formal repetition. In the first stanza alone we see repetitive colors and fabrics and hear a repetitive hum or buzzing. And like a skillful pantoum (of which there are several in this book), the reoccurring words, images, ideas morph and progress. The starched, colorless clothes of the religionists turn into the naturally colorful fabric of the booths, and the buzz of the gossip turns into the buzz of a bee. So, as “A Race” becomes more and more a prose poem (it even has indentations as prose would), the more it becomes a pantoum. Another thing that makes “A Race” typical for Lisk is that it participates in the repetition that occurs over the length of the book. Certainly all successful books have arcs that allow poems to speak to one another, and repetitive imagery and themes are mainstays for poets in control of their craft as they explore human obsession. However, Lisk’s reoccurring images feel more essential to both the life of the book (and its speaker) and to the reader. Each time these phrases, images, characters, atmospheres return they do so in a familiar prototypical, mythical, or iconic way, and while they are more numerous and varied than Hughes’ Crow figure, they are as relentless. But relentless is the wrong word. With Crow, the anxiety the reader experiences stems from the fact that they can’t get away from Crow — it is a claustrophobia of sorts. With Lisk, the anxiety stems from wondering when a particular item will return — an agoraphobic feeling that results, in this case anyway, from not having enough tangible landscape to orient yourself. In Aroma Terrapin, these items do return — obsessively — much like the repetition that is prevalent in each individual poem (or in many cases repetition that occurs in each individual line). It is as if Lisk has created a new, book-length form based on the pantoum. In “A Race,” this figure is the bee, and when it occurs, the reader feels a sense of relief from the anxiety of being disoriented; the reader gets the feeling that the speaker is experiencing an even more intense relief.
But this poem, in some ways, is not typical of Aroma Terrapin and is a more sincere, traditional apology. In it he explains his apparent silliness. Of course, silly has a serious history and needs no apology (Byron, Auden, Merrill, Ashbery — all also have a traditional formal aspect to their work that contrasts their silliness). However, because the reader may be a bit unnerved by or woozy from the associative leaps Lisk prods them to make, an apology seems well-timed. For readers who find themselves enjoying their wooziness, this gives them a chance to justify their pleasure. For those readers who had gotten to this point only because of the formal expertise Lisk displays, this may be the last chance to sell them on the book. The poem continues by depicting a misunderstanding between the fair-goers and the captain as to his intentions on entering the race:
It seems the captain, who had actually earned a “tombstone promotion” to major just before he retired, intended to ride his own mule in the point-to-point heats before the final race around the meadow. The custom was for the girls and boys from the poorer families to serve as jockeys and be granted the lion’s share of the victory purse. But the captain had his own idea. Not (as someone accused) that he planned on being stingy. On the contrary, he made a larger than usual donation to the purse and volunteered to double whatever he won and distribute it among the winners.
Lisk assures the reader that though the captain’s methods are unorthodox and seemingly both low-class and self-indulgent (although he is an officer — a figure of prestige, order, and sacrifice), they will pay off in the end. But while Lisk allows his readers, in “A Race,” to be somewhat oriented, he doesn’t water down his stance via the captain: “What amused everyone was his claim that he’d never considered racing a competitive activity” (22–23) — a non-traditional stance that even the captain’s sister is frustrated by: “‘You might as well say there’s no point in charity,’ was her response, which he evidently ignored” (24–26). Even his sister doesn’t sympathize with him. This aspect of “A Race” does make it typical of Aroma Terrapin as a whole — it is a sad poem. The captain is lonely. Emptiness and loneliness — both physical and psychological — loom over each poem. Balloons, for example, are reoccurring figures of looming emptiness, as are empty Chinese boxes (like Russian nesting dolls), open meadows, etc. But the sadness in this poem is much more narrative than in the majority of the poems in the collection — much more the shape of the lament or guilt that underscores an apology.
The fourth and fifth paragraph stanzas continue to both separate and connect “A Race” to Aroma Therapy — advancing the narrative while employing Lisk’s signature repetition and levity. We see the captain speaking to his trainer about his race-time uniform, and we see Lisk dabbling in the political once again as the poorer families gather for picnics closer to the shade-providing cathedral than to the track in order to avoid gambling. But nothing more is said about this comment on class and religion. The reader seems urged maybe to sympathize with the poor families in the same way we sympathize with the captain. But we are not urged to dislike the rich, and we even question the link between the poor and the cathedral. Are they religious? Is that a good thing? Or do they simply not trust themselves at the track to abstain from betting and take shelter near the cathedral only for its distance from the track and its shade — at this point, the captain is also in the shade under “ancient oaks” (27). This kind of pantoum-ish mirroring is abundant in these two paragraph-stanzas. The espresso tent of the religionists is transformed into the oak tree under which the captain drinks nutmeg beer (a different but equally trendy drink). The fabric of the religionists’ clothes and the booths has turned into the captain’s wool suit and billowy shirt. Shade appears under the captain’s panama, the oaks, and the cathedral. At his point in the poem, the reader is almost off balance (or pleasantly surprised by their new-found balance) due to the anticipation they feel for the race to begin. Nowhere else in the book is the reader so oriented, so involved in a narrative.
The final three paragraph-stanzas employ this same technique — the captain’s “billowing” shirt (31) turns into his “bellow[ing]” voice (68), and the buzz of the crowd turns into the voice over the PA system. However, it is this transformation from collective voices to a solitary voice that makes way for the bulk of the apology — like a play’s turn toward a soliloquy. This sort of focusing does occur throughout the collection, but it is the audience who usually changes, not the speaker. Lisk will often up the stakes in his lyrics by abruptly turning them into addresses to a “you.” This has an anxious effect; the reader’s response is almost “Who? Me?” But Lisk is careful not to do this to us in “A Race,” keeping the focus on the relationship between the fair-goers and the captain: The captain was having fun but he made it clear that he wasn’t gambling. The race itself was a gamble, of course, but he placed no side bets, not because he lacked confidence in himself or because he adopted a moralistic approach to the race, but because he didn’t take any of it very seriously. “The main question is the quality of the escape,” he said winking and raising his glass. “The escape” in local dialect was equivalent to “coming out of the gate,” for in these amateur runs there were no gates. (43–50)
Here Lisk, as he does in even his most formal poems, turns convention on its head. At the very heart of what presents itself to be an apology is a glancing excuse: “he didn’t take any of it very seriously” (47). Like Lisk’s light-hearted presentation of himself, the captain’s description of himself is also misleading. Lisk’s poems are serious, despite himself, as is the captain’s racing — the narrator is careful to point out that all the qualities of the captain’s escape are deliberate and purposeful.
Like Lisk’s self-imposed formal parameters, the captain must follow the race’s chief parameter — a parameter he delights in: “…no two riders had the same starting and ending points” (56–57). On top of this, each jockey is riding a different animal (dogs, reindeer, etc.). This of course leads to chaos and much gaiety. But this jocular atmosphere also glows with isolation. There is nothing substantial connecting the experience of anyone involved. They are racing themselves. The tenuous thread that links them — the fact that they are all riders and having a great time — is not enough to make the reader feel entirely ok: “While the captain bellowed cheerfully at every child in whose path he loomed, he whacked the mule’s rump with his crop…” (68–70). In many ways, the captain is the epitome of vitality and originality. In other ways he is a tragic, out-of-place figure — if I were a parent of one of the children racing, I’d be a little nervous. And a little sad.
Lisk gives the captain one last subtle chance at being innocuous and beloved. The violence of the race is tempered when the speaker is sure to mention that, “…one could see it was the saddle that bore the force of the blow” (70–71) and not the mule as the captain wielded his crop. Somehow this eases the tension, and Lisk carries this tone of relief through the end of the poem:
In the end, at the other side of the meadow the captain stood up in his stirrups, in a perfectly audible voiced declared himself the winner; and, sinking back into his saddle, made a victory lap around the track. That lap took the place of the final race on the meadow and everyone was happy.
But the only thing that Lisk could have done to make this atmosphere more suspicious is if he had said “everyone was VERY happy.” It well might be that, out of ceremony for this great man, this treasure of their community, the fair-goers decided to cancel the much anticipated final race (one gets a sense that a tradition has been disrupted). But just as likely (and this is where Lisk is at his best) is that they cancelled the race out of embarrassment for the captain and concern for their children’s safety. Here, as he does throughout his book, Lisk creates a surprising harmony out of the two equally convincing strains of celebration and lament. A lesser writer may have included the “VERY” so as not to be misunderstood.
Like the image of the Ouroboros, Lisk’s poems seem to nourish themselves with themselves — pantoums being perfect mediums for this. But because it is so innate to Lisk’s poetics, even the prose poems, like “A Race,” rely on this (the captain has to declare himself the winner — no one does this officially for him), and ultimately the whole book serves as a pantoum (because “A Race” is a prose poem, I don’t discuss Lisk’s penchant for doing this even intralinearly as in “lugubrious goober”  or “In the hushed loge, a gamboge ghost smokes” ). In such an atmosphere, whatever is silly, because it happens over and over, is sillier, and whatever is serious is more serious. Lisk simply has the silly turned up slightly higher in the mix — an effect that at first masks the despairing solitude that lurks in the background of this book and then makes it even sadder. When the captain has to declare himself the winner, the reader gets the sense that either the crowd is charmed and immediately takes up his strain of revelry or that this gesture of his is the last straw. This tenuousness — between joy and despair, between community and isolation — is what the reader revels in throughout Aroma Terrapin.