Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity by Benjamin Schmitt (Clare Songbirds, 2018)
But you kept on asking me
why only some grow
and others do not
and what they will
eventually grow into
(from “Track 16”)
Positioned to the reader as a book of two parts, two sides of an album, two collections of tracks, Benjamin Schmitt’s third book of poetry is both approachable and strangely mysterious in concept. It is a soundtrack to a poet making genuine attempts at furthering his understanding of the world around him, and incessantly documenting that understanding. It is a soundtrack filled with many of Schmitt’s evolving and evolved perspectives on gender, on masculinity, and male identity. It is also a soundtrack that is long, filled with many poems, perhaps too many.
Side one and side two of this “album” of poetry are two sides of the same coin. They feature Schmitt’s typical wit and playfulness that his earlier books investigated. Schmitt takes the experimentation with form and approach and offers it in a spectrum of output. Some poems feel crisp, well-edited, and homing in on the point of the book directly. Other poems feel as though they were whipped up at the last minute and thrown into the book with a “more is better” attitude. As the soundtrack continues from track to track, with poems labeled numerically across the book, there are a multitude of moments of profound beauty that otherwise fall in line with a dull, ambient hum of the filler poems in between.
on rooftops, sky and city
indecisive as gutters catch the faith.
(from “Track 5”)
On its surface, Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity appears as gargantuan, an over-the-top examination of 21st century innocence-meets-experience belly-flopping across themes and shaking the overall pool of balance a reader might hope for with book-length expectations of verisimilitude. The ripples offer moments of excitement, humor, and the occasional intellectual quandary, and yet never seem to return the book to any pristine state. It’s difficult to grasp a book that provides a straightforward platform for delivery with the actual relentless contents inside; in many cases, connections that might link poems, motifs that harness image and place and tone, are either vague or absent entirely. Even the book’s core investigation on masculinity fades in and out throughout the course of the book as if it might not need to be examined in a full spotlight after all.
On one hand, a book that is scattered offers a more robust approach to poetry through the appeal of ecstasy and rigor. The ars poetica core of Soundtrack is definitely present here by the sheer audacity of the poet providing his full hand, his indominatable range of approaches to everyday poetry. There is an intention of presenting craft and highlighting effort of the writing itself. On the other hand, I wonder about what Schmitt’s ultimate goal with this book was as he followed up on the establishing of the initial concept. No truer does this query appear than the last section of the book is identified: “Special Bonus Feature: Robot Horoscopes: The Twelve Brands of the Nasdaq.” This section, curiously titled, is lazily added on to the album as an anti-epilogue to an otherwise epic endurance test of experiencing Schmitt’s questionable curatorial skills. The coup de grace sits within these horoscopes, which are a sequence of sci-fi appearing out of nowhere and having little to no connection with the greater body of work. As a standalone piece, “Horoscopes” might be charming and even satisfying to robot fiction enthusiasts; but as an anecdote closing an otherwise potentially serious collection of poems about concepts of “man” and “man-ness,” the inclusion of this section feels a tad disappointing.
They don’t ask about my past in this city
that is why I am so free to relive it
(from “Track 22”)
All these criticisms aside, there are, as I mentioned, moments within the book that are startlingly beautiful. Schmitt’s occasional moments of stunning verse appear almost haphazardly, as if Schmitt’s truest voice was hiding deep within a poetic madman, obfuscated by the everyday hero of Schmitt’s usual and incessant voice. This philosopher-seer sits waiting to instill the reader with lines questioning modernity, crying out towards truth, and bringing Schmitt’s strongest lines of thought into the foreground. “Track 38,” for example, brings forward a stanza of archetypal brutality: “There was blood, each drop trembling / with terror as it fell upon / the ground, clutching love / in puddles of red citizenry.” In “Track 43,” another example, Schmitt brings out his inner symbolist: “On our walk / towards the purple pool / that nightly poisons the sun / maddening the days / with clear nihilism / you were taciturn.”
Amidst the mess of Soundtrack, which played and played across my full morning, I waited for moments like those above to catch me unaware and pull me back into focus with the book. These quintessentially pondersome moments served as anchor points along otherwise droning verse. Oddly, the book’s intended message, so buried within, spoke strongly to me—as a reader who is concerned with contemporary masculinity, I began Schmitt’s work with specific hopes, and left the book with a furrowed brow as I contemplated a future with Netflix robots as sex workers. It, the book’s structure and appearance, did not seem to make sense in the grand scheme of Schmitt’s vision.
What turned him on
was the choice, that from millions
of bodies he could discard
the rest by choosing one. The violent-
colored eyes that gazed back
at him seemed trustworthy
in their reliable defiance.
(from “Track 53”)
The book also contains some key design flaws that left me questioning the publisher, Clare Songbirds, and the process through which titles like Soundtrack get published. Many blank pages were scattered throughout the book separating poems arbitrarily. The small footer icon (a vinyl record) on every page occasionally rubbed up with final lines. The final section, “Horoscopes,” closed a page with a header that started the next section on the following page. Even grammar and language errors showed their face, indicating a troubling absence of editing: lines like “but does wanting poison loving?” and “a hired tough who waited” were barely noticeable but lacking grace nonetheless; seeing the faux pas of using the word “transgendered” instead of the appropriate and respectful “transgender” is a slightly graver slip.
Soundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity is a curious project that shows respectable and admirable endurance of a poet capable of significant risk-taking and demonstration. The poems capture Schmitt’s identity and identity evolution in a fascinating collection format that is flatly aligned with the album concept. The book is overloaded and could have been more impactful, I think, in a smaller, concise, and chiseled form. Perhaps Schmitt should have made more room for a B-Sides (though I imagine 100s of poems already fill that document) or even a full-length sequel.
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All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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