The Itch of Style

We Are All Just Animals and Plants by Alex Manley — Review by Matthew Harrison

Metatron Press — 2016 — $12


Fish itch. Handless, they can’t scratch, as Alex Manley reminds us in his debut book of poems, We Are All Just Animals & Plants. Like “ungulates…fowl / most insects, non-snake reptiles,” they

need to rope the outside world
into collaborating—

partners, strangers, tools,
weather patterns, acts of God….

While this poem (“The Natural Sciences”) imagines humans, like octopi, as uniquely able to scratch themselves, the rest of the volume has less faith in our abilities, interested instead in how we confront our own restless dissatisfactions by roping in the outside world, rubbing up against strangers online and in person. From “thirst faves” to tiki bars, late-night texts to bathroom coke, these are love poems less about blooming passion or desperate loss than the odd edges of relationships: the slow burnout; the ex who re-enters a social circle; the summer fling who returns to her boyfriend.  Passion, lust, and despair are momentary flashes here, amidst a lingering romantic dissatisfaction: “We are alone. You want to fuck here, / but I don’t” (“Camera”).

In its efforts to map the geography of contemporary romance from first swipe to break-up text, the book becomes, as all maps do, an exercise in projection. Like so many love poems, what starts as a message to the beloved comes to Mercatorize the cartographer himself as he explores the mutually-agreed distortions that make life navigable.

An itch is skin made perceptible, perception made awful, a crawling awareness of surface. Like pain, itches are hard to describe except by provoking sympathetic imagination with a place and cause: a fly on your knee, a feather on your neck, scratchy socks. The narrator of these poems is bedeviled by a particular itch of awareness. He’s always noticing himself noticing, constantly irritated by that thin skin of perception that separates earnestness from intensity. Again and again, verbs of awareness or cognition interject an uncomfortable mind into what might otherwise seem cheesy or overly sentimental: “I see,” “I guess,” “I imagine,” “when I catch myself trying to pretend I’ve fallen in love.”

As that last quotation suggests, the first of the book’s three sections casts this distanced awareness within an ending relationship. Even past vulnerability becomes reconfigured as a kind of masculine passivity, juxtaposed against feminine intensity. As he writes in “All I Want,”

and let your rushing emotions wash over and drain
from my body, revealing my weak spots—

These weak spots don’t remain, replaced by a kind of stalled blankness:

In the alleyway, after dark, we do it in silence.
I wait for strangers to intervene, but none do.
(“Butterfly Knife”)

The only relief for the itch of selfhood in these early poems comes in a kind of glistening, self-annihilating attention to the natural world: the names of trees, scurrying raccoons and hungry turtles, arthropods and invertebrates. Self-protective verbs fall away along with the glare of perception as the poems grow drier and more strange: “No one ever tells you not to date the ocean.”

The second section seems set two years later, after this (or another) relationship’s end, when pain has faded to a kind of uncomfortable awareness of the former lover, at backyard parties and secret bars, in resemblances on Instagram and Tinder:  

I think about her because she looks like you…

and in a few weeks someone else will help me forget about

(“Bad Reputation”)

Here, too, discomfort makes itself felt as a tic of perspective. Every woman in this cluster of poems becomes a “version” of the former lover, while all the activities of daily life seem merely performative, typical if not artificial, “Starbucked in morning.” Alongside the distancing verbs of perception comes a series of comparisons that reduce the individual to pattern, to pose:

off in slow taxis with other, taller, even
more nonchalant intellectuals than me.
(“Winter Solstice”)

“Don’t you ever get tired,” a voice demands at one point, “of being so aware?”

He does. But as in the first section, awareness offers its own hope of redemption. Feeling unstuck amidst the itchily familiar patterns and afterimages of romance, friendship, and coolness that make the social life of the postcollegiate city, the narrator again looks to nature, studying

the way roots snake; the way the leaves grow,
the way the flowers blossom, wither and fall.
(“Scotch Bonnet”)

The volume’s cover material offers this move as establishing a correspondence, a map-making, between what we call the natural world and contemporary ways of relating to each other, but equally present in these lines, I think, is their separation. Awareness doesn’t seem alienating here; vernal desire doesn’t corrode into frustration, resentment, and predictability. It’s no accident that these lines map out an ars poetica for a volume whose lines snake unpredictably, blossoming into images before withering into detachment or bathos:

The street blushes
a pile of leaves. It’s dark
and it is raining. The curb wet,
feet balancing at the lip of the side
walk. This is my life now,
(“The Lip Of”)

A tight, external image develops into—or, perhaps, merely abuts—a prosy realization, clichéd like true thoughts are, which withers into exasperated italics. As throughout, line breaks set off tiny sparks: the teetering “side/walk” a little portrait of the ruminating narrator.

Stylistically, this is a difficult curb on which to balance. It’s an aesthetic less concerned with payoffs than the interpenetration of the beautiful and the glib, the earnest emotion and the cynical response. Many of these poems yearn for an intensity that could overwhelm isolation, even as they excel in rendering the exasperating prickle of selfhood. What results is a poetics that deliberately mars itself—distancing, caveating, taking refuge in the commonplace or the clichéd. As such, these poems call attention to the thin membrane of perception between world and self, the itch of awareness that contorts itself into style.

Love poems always have a double audience and a double mission: part intimate missive to the beloved, part performance of self for all the rest of us. Tangled in Manley’s distinctive narrative voice are the ugly feelings of love and the unsettled rootlessness of contemporary adulthood. In the midst of the long love poem “In the Lip Of” that makes up most of the third section, the speaker stops to ask,

Should I wear a suit jacket or
should I admit that I will never be
anything, not a writer…

The corrosive self-doubt here casts style as a temporary alternative to failure. And indeed, the poems from this point forward embrace their status as made things; the caveats and distancing moves disappear as natural imagery reconnects to the psychological—no longer alternative but essential. The narrator’s longing becomes “a jungle aura,” “intravenous tendrils,” “the toxins, the pheromones, the evil plans.”

In the closing poems, desire acquires the force of nature, as the volume moves towards the grimly sardonic “Noahtic.” This climate change poem, named after the time of the Biblical flood, revisits images and moves from earlier in the volume, repurposing for instance the tonal ambivalence of the earlier poems as human excuse making in the face of ecological disaster: “It’s nobody’s fault, / they’ll say….” Meanwhile, the language of desire comes roaring back, no longer penned in by human ambivalence. In a rewriting of “All I Want” quoted above, erotic intensity turns into apocalypse:

The seas will not be
loud as they step to our shorelines,
testing our hearts for weak spots…

You cannot date the ocean, the narrator realizes, but the ocean will mark our end date.