CAConrad's previous collection, The Book of Frank, with its miniature portraits of a poet torturing an ordinary man in dreadfully existential ways, is maybe the closest a book of poems can come to a novel. It perfectly explains the way an author both roots for and struggles to undermine his own creation, like a Saturday morning cartoon version of the Book of Job.
Conrad's new book, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon (Wave Books, $18), is more overtly about writing. In fact, it's a how-to-write tutorial beaten about the head with the surrealist stick until it's scatterbrained. Afternoon is billed as "New (Soma)tics," and it's made up of a series of exercises that tie the act of writing to corporeality. Each exercise is followed by the poems that Conrad wrote using the exercise.
Afternoon is an odd, often beguiling mixture of memoir, personal essay, poetry collection, and cheerleading session. The first exercise—"Visit the home of a deceased poet you admire and bring some natural thing back with you"—is followed by the story of how Conrad filled "a little pot" with dirt from the backyard of Emily Dickinson's house, returned to Philadelphia,
didn't shower for three days, then rubbed Emily's dirt all over my body, kneaded her rich Massachusetts soil deeply into my flesh, then put on my clothes and went out into the world. Every once in a while, I stuck my nose inside the neck of my shirt to inhale her delicious, sweet earth covering me.
Another exercise involves stripping naked, affixing the string of a white balloon to your belly button with chewing gum ("WORK IT IN THERE"), and lying on the floor, staring at the balloon and thinking about how you were once connected to someone through your navel, how "you processed shit and other excretions through this, YOU LIVED THROUGH THIS HOLE WITH THE BALLOON NOW HOLDING ON! Take many notes."
The poems, unfortunately, are not entirely up to Conrad's standards. For every funny, confessional explosion ("your 45-minute/talk felt like/3 hours/i'm not a big/fan of similes/but it was/like listening to/Hedda Gabler/describe a/dental hygiene exam") or attention- seizing turn of narrative ("ammunition/amnesia/amnesty/in order of/appearance in dictionary"), there are two poems that feel strangely unfocused. Occasionally, the poems feel less like an image and more like a collection of words that have yet to be ratcheted down into something substantial. And sometimes, Conrad lets loose with an exhortation that feels like a self-helpy cliché: "Pause, hold your breath for a count of 4, then write with a FURY and without thinking, just let it FLOW OUT OF YOU, write, write, WRITE!... Take your notes POET, IT IS YOUR MOMENT to be totally aware, completely awake!" WOW!
But if enthusiasm is Conrad's gravest crime, it's still a misdemeanor. In the course of offering prompts and examples, Conrad reveals much of himself: the heartbreak of remembering friends and lovers lost to AIDS, the silly and solemn importance of being in love, anger at his insignificance in the face of institutional injustices like poverty and homophobia. And though only the bravest readers are likely to follow Conrad's instructions—they involve bucketsful of bodily fluids, and acting strangely in public, and sitting around naked waiting for something to happen—they still serve as a reminder that as much as we like to think of writing and reading as pursuits of the highest mental order, the act of writing requires the messy imperfection of bodies in motion, too.