Effing Press, 64 pp.
Chapel Hill poet Patrick Herron’s latest collection, Be Somebody, is pseudonymously published under the name “Lester,” who, according to his biography and photograph, is a hard-hat-wearing ventriloquist dummy. By itself this is an apt metaphor for a persona that gives voice to these poemsbut Lester also seems to be a kind of cyborg writing love letters to a character named “01,” touched with a pervasive human longing and quirky humor that at times is reminiscent of the poet Russell Edson. The wacky voice of Lester allows for the exploration of the place for the poet, and for poetry, in the digital age, where both a Pringles can and a Delphic oracle can grace his pages.
Technology is often overtly confronted by the text: “You have reached a Delphic/ oracle that has been disconnected or is/ no longer in service. 0 1 B.” But we also see it in the form that the poems take when it begs us to decipher the following code: “L3st3r 1s tr4nsluc3nt and L3st3r s4ys/ t4k3 h33d and r3m3mb3r m3” (“Lester is translucent and Lester says take heed and remember me”). Though the use of leetspeak might seem like a dazzling distraction, something both simultaneously irksome and enjoyable, the poetry is by no means robotic, but in fact suggests a longing to “be somebody” carrying an emotional depth. I’m reminded of the story of E.E. Cummings’ lack of punctuation supposedly stemming from a malfunctioning typewriter key: Lester and his poetic code direct us to the changing of poetic form with the changing of a poet’s tools, seeing a poet connected to his computer.
One of my favorite poems in the book takes place as a conversation between I and I, limiting the speech to all first-person pronouns. One nice snippet: “Great! I think I’ll take me up on that. I’m in a terrible me and I’ve got to run. Say ‘hello’ to me for me, will I?” Lester has a penchant for the conversational poem, and his humor shines in this one. This conversation between I and I later in the manuscript gets reprised between you and you and then we and we, they and they and 0 and 0 (which removes all personal pronouns from the “script”). Although it is intriguing and risky, some readers might be less enthused when they get to the fourth iteration of the conversation. As you leaf through the collection, you might ask yourself, Did I just read this? when you find a particular poem only slightly changed. There is an obsessive rehashing throughout the book of several poems; one is a single love letter addressed to “Dear 01,” trying to get the sentiment right, trying to get the poem right. While a poet’s puppet, to a certain extent, Lester may also be a poet’s poet, as many of these poems are a study in repetition and poetic form.
Although fairly untraditional, Lester plays off traditions. You hear Whitman ringing through these lines: “You celebrate yourself and sing yourself, / and what you assume you shall assume,/ for every atom belonging to you as good belongs to you.” Once again, Lester is playing with pronouns. Amid the humor and the weirdness that is Lester, we can also find the more “traditionally” poetic, as in the lovely image “We/ may instead succeed in filling this ruby throat with filaments of aged infernos” or in the opening lines of one of the longer poems in the book: “The heart of magma/ from which we derive,/ now cool, is spun/ into wind, spaces of pressure,/ forms growing and receding/ alternating dark to light/ in the form of/ fiery stellar dust, then/ to dark black heart,/ and then to stone, forever/ cold.”
It’s a quirky collection and a fun read. Whether the poem concerns a puppet longing to get the words right in love letters or a coded numerolanguage, at their core these verses seem to grapple with our very human programming.