Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Doyle & The Ersatz Life

If while reading Caitlin Doyle’s poetry you suspect everything is not as it seems, encountering “First Apartment,” an argument as concise as a Shakespearean sonnet, will throw down the gauntlet decisively. As with many of Doyle’s poems, it is benign fun on the surface: a choice of furnishings made on a whim growns into a fashion sense. The choice dictates the speaker’s clothes, her friends, and In time, her eyes adjusted to each thing / so what she saw was what her taste became. What remains is a mirror that surrounds her face, indifferent to what it reflects. The speaker has created an ersatz life, and this dichotomy – reality on one side of the door, unreal counterpart on the other (if not seeping through the windows like a house afire) – penetrates Doyle’s work. It is her fixation, and for the reader it is, in the most satisfying sense, the unease that stalks our comfort.

In Doyle’s thus-far short career, much has been made of her work with rhyme and wordplay, which she employs to heighten the ominousness of her subjects. In this respect she stands on the shoulders of several fine poets working today who use rhyme to this effect, former poet laureate Kay Ryan, as outstanding example. For starters, take a shot of Doyle’s “The Breakfast in Heidelberg Series” if you care to inoculate yourself against pretentiously allusive versifying. Delight in “Brief History Of The Bikini,” which sets the midriff-bearing outfit against its explosive namesake, Bikini Atoll:

So many summers the body wasn't there,

invisible and free to show itself
to nobody. Then boom. 

But something more complex than wordplay is at work. To say her strength lies in manufacturing literary chiaroscuro – that her go-to tactic is to put darkness in greater relief by playing it against rhyming verse – is too easy. Her true aim is something slightly different, and serves a specific purpose: to examine the merits and dysfunctions of faux worlds (call them self-delusion, fantasy, or simply nothingness) that haunt and displace traditional realities.

This territory is ripe for interrogation. Doyle and her contemporaries live in a world once-removed. The evidence that today’s realities are shaped externally is everywhere: in the echo chambers of media and TV news coverage, as well as in our communications where we become our own avatars. (Who are our friends if not those on Facebook?) Such a fractured sensibility is part of the modern culture. Just as Madame Tussand makes heads “more real than flesh” and reigns over a literal monument to simulacra in “Madame Tussand,” so does Doyle reign over these dual worlds. She does so sometimes with expected subject matter – consider the panhandler who is both statue and man, dolls which are both animate and not – but other subjects are hauntingly fresh, as in the darkly wonderful “If Siegfried and Roy Had Never Met,” which creates for the two performers an alternate narrative – one that is as free of danger as it is anodyne. In the ominous “Ocean City,” a similar dichotomy edges the dueling shores, one festooned with false idols of commerce, the other all too real.

These mirror images bleed together, Escher-like and unsettling. In the sonorous (and exquisitely rendered) “The Bells,” ringing bells are obscured by their own echo until their signifying breaks into chaos and no one can hear the chime behind each chime. The poet suggests the echo could be there to “stop the urge to steep us in too faithful a refrain” – a rabbit hole that gets straight to the seductive powers and dangers of authentic (and elusive) emotion. Either way, in the end, it's the representation that is embraced, not the actual.

It would not surprise me if Doyle were a student of Jean Baudrillard (she is one regardless of study). “The Bells” is Baudrillard’s vision come to fruition: the imitation is not sub-real, it is hyper-real. It is Disneyland, it is the Eiffel Tower in Vegas. It is our only world. This is certainly the case with “The Foley Artist’s Apprentice” where a mentor counsels that “the real sound isn’t always the best.” The poem begins this way: I wanted to be one of his props, a thing / that made the sound of other things –. And later, I wanted to be the words / on the paper. Thunder, the sound of birds, even a beating heart is not only just as good as what's on the other side of reality’s door, but (oof!) it’s better.

Doyle is keenly attuned to the haunting counterparts to the authentic – so much so that I long to know more about the functions of these constructs. What occurs when they break down? What are the moral and psychological repercussions? Do these faux worlds ultimately provide solace, or are they only bogus imitations of a dystopian world? I expect that collected, these autonomous poems would be given the freedom and restriction that would help them fulfill their unifying motive. With Doyle’s rich career stretched out ahead of her, I have every expectation they will have the chance. Then boom.

The Foley Artist’s Apprentice

I wanted to be one of his props, a thing
that made the sound of other things – an umbrella
pushed open and closed: birds’ wings.
A coconut shell, one half
in each of his hands – galloping,
galloping. I set up his microphone stands
and he made the crackle of fire
with a ball of cellophane,
poured salt on a tinfoil sheet for rain.
The sound of skin on skin - two pieces of paper he slid
against each other. I wanted to be the words
on the paper. I wanted to be what I heard
in the mixing studio as I layered and looped
his tracks. I play them back:
my body the strip of steel he shook for thunder,
the feather he held to the spinning bike wheel
for a hummingbird’s hum, the fine-toothed comb
on which he plucked the crickets’ song. The real
sound isn’t always the best,
he said, when I asked why not go outside
and record the wind – and when I held
the microphone to my chest what it amplified was less
like a heartbeat than the one he made
when he wrapped
the microphone in felt and gently tapped
it against a bass drum, again and again.

Used with permission.

About Caitlin Doyle
Caitlin Doyle’s poetry has appeared in many publications, including The AtlanticThe Boston Review and the 2009 edition of Best New Poets. She is currently a finalist for a 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. She holds a fellowship as a Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House, and recently she received a grant from the John Anson Kittredge Foundation for her manuscript in progress, "Tea in Eden.” You can find out more about Caitlin at caitlindoylepoetry.com.

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