Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie by Jay Ritchie - Review by Jake Byrne
Coach House Books - 2017 - $19.95
In “Upcycle”, Jay Ritchie’s speaker “remind[s himself] instead/The wind hitting my body cannot be/said to have a beginning or an end”; later, the speaker decries it as “philosophy I grasped better as a teenage Taoist/choosing not to smoke pot at lunch”. So begins the central motif of the collection, the push-pull between the sacred and the stupid, the koan followed quickly by the ad slogan. It’s all part of the rich and varied tapestry of life, of course, and Ritchie isn’t the first to suggest so. But where the book is both most compelling and most frustrating is in its refusal to give ground to either the highs modulated by this ironizing distance, the lows heightened by their proximity to the highs. In this book, things simply are.
At once this collection is wry and winking. “Celebration of Life”, perhaps the most moving piece in the book, tells us that “[t]hree people had died/in one day, and for three days/there was one funeral per day -/except today is different, today/is a celebration of life” – and the punchline here is both funny ha-ha and funny sad. When Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie achieves this balance between emotional remove and immediacy it triumphs. The longer pieces in the book seem to possess a charge that some of the briefer pieces do not. Like playing Katamari Damacy or observing a nebula in space, if you collect enough debris something exciting will happen. And exciting things do happen! The titular poem (“Cheer up, Jay Ritchie”) crackles and pops like an old radio until suddenly a song breaks through clear as the morning dew. I would quote its final two stanzas, but I want you to experience that for yourself. “Multi-Level Marketing” cribs lines from ubiquitous Lululemon slogan totes and takes a gap year across western Europe but feels like too many nights spent in unidentifiable hostels; with no roots in a single mode or even mind, it ends as hazily as a Parisian July evening.
At times, the book feels inscrutable. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult – Ritchie’s language is consistently and refreshingly accessible, something I struggle with in my writing and admire in the writing of others – but that the poems sometime maintain a refusal to let the reader know what they are feeling. “Dumb Body” plays this up in an almost mocking fashion, when it describes grass “wet/which was significant for vague reasons” set in “May something, two thousand something”. With titles like “Absent Referent”, we are repeatedly shown that Ritchie is in on the joke.
And maybe the joke is the point. Taoism is flowing like water through this collection, flowing through holes late capitalism has bored through the landscape. While I’d be remiss not to mention the philosophy’s presence here, I don’t in fact know much about it. But I definitely do know about the systems that produce excess and lack, and the way it feels to be living in this system, how it saps value from life. Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie quietly and angrily attempts to bring joy back to interiority while commercials play loudly in the background. Ritchie’s speaker may write to a prospective employer that “Every Brand Has a Story – Here’s Mine”, but the humiliations capitalism inflicts upon us are always contextualized by life “with a mountain in the distance/and a planet in the distance” (“Hotel-Dieu”).
Next to the lines “I don’t know why I write/about my past/I would rather write/about my pasta” (“With Wild Abandon and Uncommon Hope We Set Out on Our Journey”) on my copy of the book is a note I’ve added - Fuck you, Jay Ritchie!. I can’t deny it’s a dad joke of the highest calibre and like all groaners contains a magic sort of duality in that I both want to die and want to live when I read it. It’s the sort of line that makes me question my own assumptions about art. It also tells me that the book was written by someone who knows joy and is unafraid to express that. That’s really nice to know.
This book doesn’t always give me what I want. But it might give me what I need. And of course I can’t fault it for that. Life doesn’t give us what we want. Life just is, full to the brim with beauty and misery and noise.
If you allow it to pass by you, it will. As the wind does.