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Monday, March 15, 2010

Shya Scanlon's _ In this alone impulse, _, reviewed by Jac Jemc

In this alone impulse,
Shya Scanlon
Noemi Press (2010)
ISBN-13: 9781934819104
Paperback: 68 pages, $15.00

reviewed by Jac Jemc

I like a book that’s willing to let me in on its process, or, at the very least, let me think I’m watching something first hand. In this alone impulse, does just this. The reader can gather the constraint: seven lines and from there, wide open space. Work is allowed to double over on itself and eat its own tail.

On the first page the reader discovers the permission Shya Scanlon has given himself. The poem (kind of), “A Bargain,” moves quickly, trying out different combinations and meanings. It jumps from the logical beginning, “I have a house,” to the incomprehensible belly, “A have now house about me anymore,” and cycles back on to the first line on the last, “I have a house. Not my house. Not any house.” I’ll be honest: I was skeptical on the first page. I thought, “Okay, macramĂ© poems. Time to read 59 more.” Luckily, Scanlon has a masterful concept of play, not just twisting and tying words up in knots, but creating Chinese handcuffs out of rhythm and image as well.

As I moved through this collection, I was constantly situating myself, but the most acquainted I could get, was telling which stone I’d just hopped from and to which stone I would hop next. That’s a terrible metaphor, considering the beautiful ones that populate this book (“You came and I’m a mumbled number”; “We’re guns aren’t we you said and I said maybe”; “Cry. You are a calendar,” to name just the handful I flipped to quickly). Let’s try again. Let’s say it’s like sex: I know where his hand just was, you can feel the direction his hand is heading, but I don’t want to know where his mouth will be in five minutes: it would ruin the fun. That metaphor’s at least a little more entertaining than an effing shallow stream.

In perhaps my favorite poem in the collection, “Rock ‘n’ roll,” Scanlon explores the excitement of boredom with riffs on hackneyed expressions:

fffffIs bored something? More great. No stop now, yes, but stopping
fffffis. Is an. Is sparrow. A bored not better flyer. Is minnow. A bored
fffffbetter fish. Stop mixin’, Nixon. You old fruit to fly. Dead one.
fffffI’ll ply your pull like nonedunnit. A winsome thensome. A bored
fffffbatter. You old fish-to-fry. Don’t speak no stop no, sneaky
ffffffffffservice. K?
fffffOld phony. Simple Spanish. Paz, baby. Spare me. Be more than, is
fffffthan. Be a more great beginning. Be stiff as a bored.

I’m such a sucker, when it’s done well, for a good play on words. Scanlon connects the dots I normally ignore or forget about. He moves deftly between the soft-edged “sparrow” and “minnow,” and transitions seamlessly to the joy-buzzer, “Stop mixin’, Nixon.” Everywhere in this book, I felt that stellar combo of tongue and teeth.

It’s been a long time since I took such joy in alliteration and assonance, like in the poem title, “Danger dagger bladder blood,” or the line in “Stub toward” that reads, “I’m callow, caw. I’m cork.”

I procrastinated writing this review as I do everything. The initial approach I’d thought of was to start with a Beckett quote that kept sounding in my head while I was reading In this alone impulse, “Let us hope the time will come when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute.” I felt like the quote was an easy way out for some reason, and was trying to find another way into the review. Then, on the day I sat down to finally write this, Scanlon posted that quote on the website, The coincidence was too great not to recognize. Sometimes, it seems, our impulses are not so very alone.

In “Surprise, surprise,” the narrator says, “We’ll […] speak softly until our mouths organize, and refuse.” Exactly.


Jac Jemc lives in Chicago. Her chapbook, This Stranger She'd Invited In, is coming out this year from Greying Ghost Press, and her first novel, My Only Wife, is forthcoming in 2012 from Dzanc Books. She is the poetry editor of Decomp, a fiction reader for Our Stories, and a bookstore liaison for Tarpaulin Sky. She blogs regularly at, and