Jason Bredle, Standing in Line for the Beast, New Issues, 2007
More than once while we were packing up our former house, emptying the contents of drawers and shelves that had settled into dusty disarray since our last move, I had to stop myself from examining every little thing. A college yearbook, a box of mix-tapes, even a few pieces of foreign currency—any one of these things could set off a nostalgic chain reaction that could waylay me for hours. My Ray Kroc Youth Achievement Award, for example, presented to me at high school graduation for God only knows what reason. Surely THAT was as ancient and irrelevant now as an outgrown pair of Bugle Boy jeans. But turning over the Big Mac-sized medallion in my hands—with its splendid likeness of the founder of McDonald's Corporation embossed in gold on the front, smiling as he bestowed upon me a year's supply of free McDonald's—it suddenly seemed as familiar and essential again as my own car keys. I couldn't bear to throw it away. How was it that that vaguely remembered earlier life, with all its bad fashions and pointless stories, seemed so real to me—while my current life, with all its furniture and credit cards and stupid little pillows gathered around me hundreds of miles away, felt like a strange and distant dream?
The poems in Jason Bredle's first full-length collection, Standing in Line for the Beast, spill off the page like a whole closetful of Ray Kroc Youth Achievement Awards—a thousand individual moments so strangely and vividly crystallized you want to hold onto them forever. Take the first poem in the book, "On the Way to the 53-B District Court of Livingston County, October 1, 1999," which would seem to commemorate one highly specific occasion in particular but in fact never gets around to that, digressing from the very start:
It begins while eating something extremely
erotic, like a cake with a picture of two
people making out on it. It begins on a Friday
night, driving to Lansing with Anne. It begins
before that, with the line, He was interested
in this turn of events. It begins with
$148.77 worth of phone calls
And on and on. Each abandoned beginning, each snipped thread of thought, carries the tantalizing hint of a good story behind it. But the hint is almost as good as the story itself, in the same way that a random Polaroid discovered on the sidewalk and sent to FOUND Magazine invites us to invent a much stranger explanation than we'd ever imagine if we were there when the picture was taken.
Bredle's poems are full of such elliptical references to individual persons, places, and episodes, references which might otherwise fail to resonate were it not for the depressingly familiar and mundane world he constructs around them. If Bobbie Ann Mason is the voice of "Kmart realism" in fiction, then Jason Bredle is the poet of the White Hen convenience store. The men and women who populate his poems always seem to be on their way to or from some quickie mart, fountain drink in hand, en route to a friend's house, or parking lot, or Mexican restaurant, or a lame party where they'll get "cornered most of the night by a Chinese / lawyer instead of that quintessential babe / you'd been hoping for," or possibly another quickie mart where they'll spray-paint "GIRLS, LOOK OUT / FOR TODD BERNSTEIN" on the side of the building. I have no idea who Todd Bernstein is, or Julie Piepmeyer, or Don Simpson, or Nick, or Kirk, or Sarah, or Anne, or any of the other regulars who pop up in these poems. The strange thing is, I FEEL like I know them, just as I feel like I've been to Hamtramck, Michigan; Zanesville, Ohio; Cougar, Washington; and Big Sandy, Texas; though I've never been even close. The laid-back, conversational style has a lot to do with this. Reading a poem by Jason Bredle is like reconnecting with a friend you had in college whose sense of humor has only grown sharper, whose offhand quotes are even more quotable, and whose thirties are turning out to be highly amusing despite the fact that they've already taken a few tragic turns. You feel like you've been right there with him the whole time because he tells it so well.
Memory is the presiding muse of this book. The luminous warmth of certain memories, but also the overbearing weight of them, and above all the anxiety that things may never be as good as they once were. Even at its funniest moments—and holy mother, this is a funny book—there's always an underlying, dead-serious awareness of being bounded by time. More often than not, Bredle's speakers don't know what to do with this awareness, except to keep talking, keep summoning up the past, as in these lines from "You Won't Believe What's Happening in Hamtramck," where we find the memory from which the book takes its title:
... It was so cold, and the stars so
encompassing you thought there was no way
you could ever turn back, that you had nothing
to do but keep going, like the time standing
in line for the Beast, King's Island, Cincinnati,
Ohio, July 24, 1998—
you realized this may not last forever,
any of this, and before long you were right—
Readers familiar with Bredle's chapbook, A Twelve Step Guide, will notice the complete shift to free verse in this book. That, too, seems like a nostalgic impulse. Bredle writes like someone trying to make you understand the best and worst times of his life and, unconvinced that you truly comprehend, keeps trying. In fact, if I had to offer one criticism, it would be that occasionally his lines grow a little too talky, a little palaverous—not as tightly sprung and snappy as the chapbook poems.
But that's okay, because I have a feeling we'll be hearing more from Jason Bredle. If memory serves, this book won some kind of award. Maybe not a year's worth of free fast food, but something fancy. Something appropriately commemorative of this youthful achievement. —AW