Finely Crafted Multitudes
The Exuberant Overabundance of C. E. Putnam
Before he moved to Singapore, C. E. Putnam was one of the most faithful contributors to Seattle's vibrant and vigorous literary scene. He helped curate the legendary Subtext reading series, he was a member of avant-poetry performance group Interrupture, and he always seemed to have two or three projects going at any moment. Singapore seems to encourage his more bookish, less performative side: On the eve of his return to Seattle, Putnam has published six separate books of poetry simultaneously.
The two books that Putnam provided to The Stranger for review, The Papier-Mâché Taj Mahal (P.I.S.O.R. Publications, $14) and Things Keep Happening (P.I.S.O.R. Publications, $16), are so different that they could almost have come from two different authors. Things is a tall book, with poems that sprawl across the page in a variety of shapes and rhythms, sometimes accompanied by illustrations. Taj Mahal is more compact, more book-shaped, with poems that more closely conform to the idea of what a poem usually looks like.
Things is the book that will appeal most to fans of experiment-minded literature. (It features a map of all the Capitol Hill "taking off & landing points" where Putnam found "textual content, creation, and nodes of post-astral transcendence.") The text that pulls you through the book, sometimes in wispy puffs of stanzas floating in the upper right corner, and other times with a more direct, dagger-shaped series of couplets slicing down the page, feels eerily like a crime novel with everything normal cut out: A character (presumably Putnam) wanders around town, past "the mobsters'/houses on Aloha" and making wary notice of the police, who are helpless to stop the weird Armageddon befalling the streets, in a torrent of tornadoes and mysterious "creatures of light."
While Things is the high-concept blockbuster, Taj Mahal shows off a diverse array of Putnam's skills. The poems are not of one solid piece, though they all contain frequent, explicit references to food (in a poem titled "What I Did on the First Day of Spring," Putnam "Woke up late, peeled off my citrus skin... ate a mango [and] uncurled the sweet grass") and meat (a father at a barbecue bellows, "I only have one fucking arm!" before his sons "watch dad eat his hamburger with one hand, ketchup spilling/down his arm") and sex ("Waves made/streams this way, that way, the rain,/the water, running over our bodies/running through our clothes"). It's probably the tightest poetry collection I've read this year, with not one word out of place. Putnam has always been a buckshot sort of genius, firing words in as many directions as he can; Taj Mahal proves that those words are not, nor have they ever been, indiscriminate.