Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins once told an audience that the study of literature, especially of poetry, is the study of death. Whatever a poem’s apparent subject—love, trees, soup—it’s the certainty of loss that powers the tensions holding a poem together. South Carolina Poetry Initiative prize winner, Worthy Evans, feels this loss in his debut poetry collection, Green Revolver, which examines work, family, war, and social contracts. Among the lively play of metaphors, alternative personas, and surrealistic narratives is a tense blend of alienation, angst, love, and even humor.
Green Revolver is divided into three sections, although the same topics inform them all. Anyone who has ever toiled in a corporate cubicle of motivational posters and stain resistant carpet will recognize the absurdity of “Instructions” in this snippet:
If you determine that work procedures
prevent the practice of processing,
treat the request as an inquiry.
Submitting a problem ticket
dismisses this appeal, but must
initiate from inside the QIC…
…treat the duplicate as
hyperlink for the existing
Unlike Peter in the 1999 film Office Space, Evans has obviously gotten the memo on TPS reports. He hijacks corporate jargon and tunes the p, s, and t sounds to create music, humor, and parody. The final word, “Repeat,” is a curt reminder of existential despair.
Marriage comes under observation in “Sunset.” It begins, “The man and his wife walked up to the/canyon lip and he said It’s good,/not great. But the book said to do it/so here we are.” The people under scrutiny are never named, but the sense is that they are emblematic of many couples. The speaker reports, “The man said he and/the wife got married and later looked/to the west as it stood before Lake/Pontchartrain.” The man calls the woman “the” wife, not “my” wife, a small but important choice of the poet’s to hint at a bit of emotional distance and that “wife” is a sort of informal job title like “the pizza guy.” The speaker even introduces her as “his wife.” Recalling the view at the lake the man asserts, “That was better,/and so was this place in Australia.” There is a white space pause between verses and the next verse focuses on the wife. “The wife until this point had been silent./She was always the framer and picture/hanger for her husband,/she told me as/we were walking back to the gift shop/to look at posters, postcards and/screensavers of what we had just seen./I believe I’ll take this one, she said.” This brief encounter could be interpreted as sweet or incidental. Evans’ self-effacing record of the couple suggests a habit of consuming revisionist personal history. The “one” the wife takes at the gift shop is not the one she and her husband have experienced. Actual experience and memory are not up to her aesthetic standards so she substitutes a better, photoshopped version. Extending the unspoken cynicism, it is easy to assume the wife edits, crops, frames, and hangs glossy improvements in other areas of the couple’s lives. Both “Instructions and “Sunset” demonstrate the loss of meaningful productivity and the defeat of authentic memory by mass produced products.
Green Revolver includes poems which make use of male sports culture. Evans blends his knowledge of this culture with his understanding of the military in “The Lesson.” Having been a sportswriter and a combat engineer with the Army, he has credibility and fluency in this area. Although some of the poems in this book are written in the first person, “The Lesson” again makes use of a detached narrator.
Four hundred trainees bound for war
filled sections H through K in the ballpark,
ready to take in a game. Time to pitch security notions
and pulling guard to watch college boys in summer leagues
…take a break and beat each other with
wooden bats and tricks rubbed up in the dirt.
The trainees holler the Soldier’s Creed
…at attention, and got to the pitcher in
the fifth. His slider down and in went too far,
too hot to handle for his catcher who
pounced a mitt on the ball just as
the runner at second jumped for third. Catcher rifled
too hard around the right-handed batter
and the bullet sailed away from the third
baseman and into left
As soon as it’s noted the college boys will be beating each other and using dirty tricks, it appears that summer baseball and war begin to overlap. Rifling and “the bullet” add to the idea. The poem then continues at a good clip:
to catcher but by then our runner rounded
the bag and set his sights on home. When
the ball bounced back in, the run was on
the board. Some pats on the back…
When did the runner become “our” runner when he sets his sights for home? If he’s our runner, who are we? Who is the speaker now? Is he a college boy, trainee or both? “Set his sights” is a metaphor for aiming at something you are going to shoot, so the overlap carries forward. The home run is transformative as the point of view changes so the trainees are now promoted to soldiers and the pitcher has learned a lesson. War and baseball are not dissimilar: the opposing team is just another enemy and can’t a baseball game become training for war?
The poems discussed above are only a few of Worthy Evans’ shrewd riffs on the human condition. Readers will discover among the ballads of existential angst, the surprise of genuine affection without sentimentality, and the ordinary paired with dark whimsy. Evans’ first book combines Office Space with Fight Club and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Some of the poems in Green Revolver left me with more questions than answers. Others seemed to end in a poetic cul-de-sac of non sequitor. But this is Evans’ point of living in modern America: even as people gain connections via technology, they are losing pieces of themselves. In Green Revolver, life never contains clear answers and that even if you are a contributing member of society, you can still feel distant and alienated from your fellow human beings.