Book Review: Ticker by Mark Neely
Cover art ©Teun Hocks
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
Ticker, by Mark Neely, begins with disaster—specifically, the Challenger disaster, setting us in time and space, along with contextual references to Mad Max, Desperately Seeking Susan, and “the doddering Gipper.” I knew exactly where I was in the book, and, in time, as with many generational disasters: a TV room, with my dad, during a visit home, while the speaker of “Subvocal (Challenger)” is a kid, watching on a “jittery schoolroom television…the launch become a strange white praying // mantis in the sky.” What an image, right? Exactly captures that scary fracturing when the rocket went awry. As the opening poem, “Subvocal (Challenger)” creates the scary, fractured paths of the disastrous age to come.
Age itself is one of the personal disasters. In the poem, “Oof,” “Annie says you know you’re getting old / if you pull yourself from the car / with an involuntary oof.” These are the central characters: 1) Annie, who is married to 2) Bruce, whose life is quietly disastrous, partly through awareness. They have lost a child, in the heartbreaking “Unborn Elegy,” “Black Balloon,” and other poems, and raised kids, too, as the poems veer finally toward hope. Bruce is a third person character, sometimes speaking for himself as an “I,” or maybe the speaker is a version of the poet seeing through Bruce’s eyes.
Example from “Subvocal (Supermodel)”:
I go slowly crazy in this graceless cage,
a stadium singer
stuck in the trappings of a middle manager,
a spirit meant to sin, press palms, stalk the cat-
walk with a crew of gorgeous acolytes.
Instead I peer through the bars of Bruce’s eyes,
biding time in the middle of the Middle West,
where raking leaves is conversation, where dying
is an occupation.
This doubleness is also present in that word “subvocal,” repeated as part of several poem titles. I had to look it up; it means unarticulated speech—thinking, in essence, thought in word order, going on without being spoken. It can be tracked, by electrodes on the throat. It’s there!—in silence, in science, and in poems.
I want to praise the brilliance of form as well as content in these poems. Several are a two-columned form that read beautifully both ways, across and down, reminding me of the richness of some four-paned poems Mark Neely wrote in the past, gathered in Four of a Kind. I relish the dark fun of “Star Vehicle,” in which Bruce imagines his life as Hollywood movie plots, and “Famous Bruce,” which imagines even further… “But on each new
window sill roosted the future’s
cooing gently, calling him
back to insignificance.
I hear bitterness and frustration in these poems, personal and shared, cultural, political, economic. I love “The Economy Stupid,” a poem in which Bruce is compared to a Taco Bell; “He’s open late. / He lets anybody in.” The book seems to explore what’s wrong with America today, without, of course, being able to fix it. Pollution, destruction of natural resources, capitalism, consumerism, the cult of celebrity, reality tv, the inability to 1) live out one’s early dreams 2) find purpose and meaning in our daily lives. It takes place in grocery stores and hospital rooms, on the way to work, in the back yard, day after day, where, despite the monotony, we might become aware of our “murderous thoughts” or foiled ambition or, suddenly, beauty, or even joy!
The ticker of the title might be in the “ticker tape” of diving stock, or a worn out heart, or a cartoon time bomb. I want to return to the praying mantis, as I have one alive in my house right now, brought indoors on a potted patio plant to escape the frost. He crawls from plant to plant, hangs upside down from leaves, and sways gently in the sunshine, looking out, as if to escape, or looking back at us, and we sway back. Neither of us is each other’s prey.