Alan Gilbert’s 265-page collection of poems, The Everyday Life of Design (Studio / SplitLevel Texts), is expansive and consuming. One can sense a poet trolling for a long time — so many strange cultural artifacts have wound up tangled in his nets. But Gilbert keeps to his monotone — he’s a disciplined deadpanist. Each poem is just another design on the calendar of passing days, as he stoically speaks from his terminally doomed middle-aged heart. The poems take refuge in their bland, Ashbery-esque colloquialism.
The “designs” are broken into four chapters that could be biographical: “Tangle of Wishes”; “Damage is Done”; “Organ Donor”; and “Docking Bay.” These sections seem to chronicle a man’s unfortunate entrance into mid-life, though it’s difficult to gauge how many years of maturation have gone into their making, how many decades of reflection and revision, and often Gilbert uses a “we” pronoun that may refer to someone else, a partner in crime, along for the ride into an ambiguous hellishness. Each poem is like a flare-up of benign existential doom.
Gilbert unpacks and shares the quotidian nature of life — memories old and new gently merge, coalescing, co-contaminating in pools of sullen words. The reader’s attention can then ripple across their lyrical surfaces. The poems flirt with being drab, and maybe a little retro, but their banal humor, sense of detail, and pop-cultural cameos (like Earl and Evel) maintain a steady backbeat and imaginative buoyancy. They are at times surreal as Gilbert allows the poems to lead, to tango with intuition and the unconscious.
“Before the sun comes out // and washes away the Day Glo,” writes Gilbert. We sit in the Glo of his proverbial Nighthawk diner, and the next day arrives in a “parade.” Strangers meet at hotel bars with little disco dance floors that light up. We tag along to a chaotic garden party with scattered caterers and unattended children in a swimming pool. Like William Eggleston, his roving camera loaded with color film, Gilbert, by reflex, goes with whatever seems to catch his eye: “a small dog ran to where // the clam chowder spilled.” The stanza continues to move rapidly, as this fictional photographer snaps away.
Or has someone been up all night surfing other people’s pictures on the Internet?
I posted a photo, but no one liked it.
Later, I got an online ad
for a leash and mucus reducer,
yet my barking app takes me
straight to porn.
Gilbert seems to suggest that all roads, even the one less traveled, lead to porn. We feel for our author’s slight disgrace and know that his boredom is not his fault. The sun, even after showing up for its shift, relieving the Day Glo, will still leave him groping in the dark. On or offline, Gilbert is simultaneously directionless and right on target. Down the hamster tube we go. Eventually we find ourselves signing in at visiting hours at some hospital, or psychiatric bin.
I should probably tell someone.
except they already know.
What are visiting hours
with the mentally ill?
The poet (or is he a patient?) writes: “The few items I’d rescue from a fire // fit in a bag destined // for recycling or a landfill.” Indeed, the bags are packed as he writes and unpacked as we read. Pathos prevails, and Gilbert allows us to reflect on the bagged remnants destined for toxic landfills. Even libraries on Ivy league campuses might be thought of as dumpsters for literary liquidation. All must go!
In the poem “Fairytales of the Holocene,” we encounter a hungry writer living in a pre- and post-apocalyptic stage of humanity. The Holocene, which refers to the deglaciation of the earth’s surface, which has afforded humanity a temporary window of opportunity, has deprived Gilbert, who resorts to cooking with words and writing with recipes: “the dictionary doubled // as a cookbook after // we forgot to restock // the pantry…” Indeed, he’s convincing as a loner pecking at his typewriter with one finger, chucking balled-up discarded drafts into the wicker basket under his desk.
It’ll be light out
a few more minutes.
Remind me when
you’re coming home.
I will fill my wicker basket,
and it’s not enough.
Whose arrival is anticipated? Is the writer planning for a romantic encounter with the words themselves, hoping they will come back to the page of this reincarnated Beat uniquely fit to record the daily wear and tear of it all:
Medical supplies stored
in a makeshift tent
travel the world
on a freighter carrying
bicycle parts and
striped beach balls
tumbling into the sea
Somehow the medical supplies provide the poem with the chill of triage, while the beach ball and bicycles parts inject droplets of nostalgia. The muse has delivered. The freighter has come from oceans far and wide, as Gilbert’s letter collects litter, or, as Eliot once called it, “stony rubbish.” Moody shores and skies persist: “The shoreline isn’t getting any closer. // I could stare at this screen for hours, // watching smokestacks pierce the clouds.”
In the poem “Open all Night,” Gilbert writes: “The clouds aren’t moving in the right direction, // or maybe it’s just me.” The writing is on the wall. Gilbert knows he’s out of synch with the periodic pulse of the mother’s natural order. Even if the clouds are moving counterclockwise, he is still going in the wrong direction, still adrift in a polluted world, TikTok-ing along, scrolling till he’s just a thumb away.
What’s with this protagonist? We never can quite discern his ailment. Is it a broken heart? A broken marriage? His mind and memory seem to be intact. At times, he is clearly grooving in a disco fairytale (even the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive” gets a mention). And while the poems occasionally fizz with embarrassingly personal and confessional autobiography, they are also abstract, as if radiating from an old Zenith television glazed with nicotine, showing a rerun of Happy Days. (Fonzie has NOT left the building.)
Home sweet Holocene. This is where we often find Gilbert, when he’s not carting his child around a borough in Brooklyn or some other generic suburban sprawl. I picture the father played by Ethan Hawke in the film Boyhood — a man with partial custody doing the best he can. Even if the only meal is a sugary snack. In one poem Gilbert writes:
It’s a little early in the day for Mister Softee
to be idling at the corner, but sugar needs a ride,
so don’t sleep on it at the warning track dirt
with Donald Duck slobber.
The painterly contact between the swirl of soft serve and the duck slobber is visceral. And while I begin to get an icky feeling, I also feel for his struggle. Every time we encounter a reference to junk food, I feel my heart sink and my tooth ache, as if I’m getting a cavity by proxy. Fruit Loops, Jolly Ranchers, Junior Mints, Milky Way, Almond Joy, Cracker Barrel, Dunkin’ Donuts — are all mentioned by name in various poems.
A sugar junkie takes “a tumble down // the insulin tunnel,” where “free needles” are “distributed in the candy wrappers…” In another poem Gilbert writes of “a half-finished can of Pepsi” and describes being “back on the beach” when he humorously loses “control over the Cheez Whiz.”
The obsession with local color and calories continues as Gilbert brings us through the door into a 7-Eleven, or perhaps a Wawa:
A convenience store clerk cleans the display case
with paper towels and Windex.
That’s a lot of effort to go to for a strip of beef jerky.
In a very desperate domestic moment we search for something (anything!?) to eat. Instead we find “a ribcage fusing with the refrigerator door // and its array of hardened condiments.” When the condiments have hardened, you know things are getting grim.
But meat (the genuine protein) is the mantra in these poems — be it a “strip of chewy beef” or “extra meatballs” fed to a dog, or the meat at the deli counter that, in a moment of dark hallucination, stares back, “While me and the meat slices hold a mutual admiration fest.” At another moment, the poet-narrator stands captivated by the “Bamboo skewers charring on the portable grill // which are gifts from the decaying world.”
The narrator expresses disgust with food, and the nauseating effect food is having on his body. He writes: “The same song played on a loop all afternoon // While I bury the evidence of another failed meal.” Gilbert seems to be hinting at the futility of holding down a meal or absorbing nutrients. It’s hard not to cringe.
Gilbert and/or his poems could be seen as a form of digestion, leading by design toward a flux. “It’s not as if I’ve been probed by aliens, but let’s say that we’ve gotten familiar.” Like Burroughs, Gilbert’s dystopia can get a little scatological, not to mention trippy. It is reminiscent of the banana-inhaling Krapp of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), who keeps running off to sit on the can. Perhaps Gilbert is reminding us that all poetry is a symptom of an emotional irritable bowel syndrome.
The Everyday Life of Design by Alan Gilbert (2020) is published by Split Level Texts / Studio and is available online and in bookstores.