“Free” is universally appreciated concept. Free items, free expression, and of course, freedom from constraints or burdens—all of these figure into Toni Mirosevich’s latest poetry collection, The Takeaway Bin (Spuyten Duyvil). The free exploration of modern oddities, paradoxes, and our dysfunctional world amuse readers with pun and word play, but the collection struggles to free itself from its self-created forms.
Outwardly, the only trapping of form evident in the book is poet’s choice to structure her poems around concept statements, or “worthwhile dilemmas,” from the card game “Oblique Strategies,” a 1975 creation of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. Each poem takes as an epigraph a concept ranging from the relatively straightforward “Be Dirty” to the more oblique “What are the sections sections of: imagine a caterpillar moving”; from the given directive emerges an exploration in verse of the possibilities contained in each phrase.
What happens, though, whether or not the author is conscious of it, is that many of the poems fall into a discernible structural pattern that leads to some predictability for readers. The pattern goes something like this: title, epitaph. Then the poem opens with an imperative statement directly related to the epitaph. The middle of the poem consists of a string of related thoughts connected by way of word association, humorous word play, or concept connection. Each poem concludes with a pithy statement or observation to sum up the overall concept of the poem.
To call out one example, in “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda”: the speaker insists on “it” being done “with less panache. With the pedal to the metal. With a holy roller./With her by my side. With a canopy, billowing. With a nutcracker.” Nutcracker leads to “ball breaker,” to irony, to “Irony and her comely stepsister, Chastity,” and on into Chaz Bono, to submarine sandwiches, to torpedoes, and on to a tam-and-tartan wearing shuttle driver who named her automobile the “Van-o’-shanter.” It’s a bit of an expected move into “drive the point home,” and the closing lament of “I woulda,/coulda, shoulda done it differently, if I’d the balls to let go.”
A few poems with this structure would be effective. A fair number of poems with this structure, spaced out throughout the book might still work. But so many of the poems fall into this pattern—despite the diverse and indeed worthwhile explorations of modern incongruities—that it is hard not to see the palpable designs behind the work. A reader who likes to lose herself in the magic of a book may not get that “swept away” feeling.
And yet, given the repetition inherent to everyday life, perhaps we should not be so surprised by Mirosevich’s choice of form. In all fairness, the word play opens up the possibilities of the absurd—a term frequently, and aptly used to describe existence in 2011. At times, these references do achieve more than the sum of serious and humorous; in “Rift Zone,” for instance, she writes “R as in Rift comes before T as in Trust, and if you can’t/come to terms with each other it’s time for term limits.” The personal and political implications are endless. Likewise, the title poem, which ends the collection, urges the reader to “Take away/what you planned to do today: trim your nails, build a seesaw,/sweep the ocean floor. It’s less important to get the worm/than to have one last frame of the dream.” Other poems in which the postmodern is at its finest include “Sectionals,” “Bus Ride,” “Free Box,” and “Heathcliff.”
Perhaps the collection’s greatest strength is the musicality of its voice. Though Mirosevich’s biography does not identify her as such, the sound and rhythm of her poems borrow from the spoken word tradition. Frequent pairings of internal slant rhymes, often breaking across stanzas—counting/downturn, box/back, middle/permit—give the lines a rhythm that practically rises from the page.
To consistently employ humor in poetry is a difficult task—not simply because poetry is thought of as a binary, with humor and gravitas as opposites—but because doing so requires having yet masking a purpose. And acknowledging that the choice may not appeal to all reading audiences. Readers who delight in the inclusion of popular culture and pun-like word play in poetry will no doubt enjoy The Takeaway Bin. Readers who balk at such things might struggle harder to connect with these poems.
The Takeaway Bin
By Toni Mirosevich Spuyten Duyvil Paperback, 9781933132815, 78pp. October 2010