Timothy Liu, Polytheogamy

Publisher: Saturnalia Books
2009, 91 pages, paperback, $16

one imagines timothy Liu would never consider anything broken, even if he painstakingly dissected, labeled, and smashed each cog of the machine himself. In his seventh book of poetry, Polytheogamy, Liu tests the strength of lyric by treating it as a minefield in which he explodes and reinvents social and personal paradox. Charles Altieri writes in his introduction to the text, “Liu’s lucidity is ludic, or almost ludic because of his sense of the freedom evoked by his insistent refusal of lyric expansiveness. The negatives born out of Liu’s lucidity become strange sources of plentitude.” The plentitude of Polytheogamy is strange because themes of dysfunctional family life, futile marriages, and marginalized homosexuality are more connotative of Sisyphus than Dionysus. Liu’s sense of the dynamic tension between restrictive obligation and fanciful excess is confronted directly in the book’s opening poem “The Crisis”:

Unwilling to be dragged through marriages any longer.
Was equilibrium what we were ever really after?
A stasis the dual abyss?
Never mind that carousel on which we endlessly ride.
Hip-flab hanging off forty-something hags.
Nothing sadder than a clown fingering dirty bills.
His shorts ripped off.
Rolling blackouts said to be expected all summer long.

Though Liu is Sisyphean in the traditional context, titling seven poems “The Marriage” and another six “Romance,” “The Crisis” rehashes the inevitable drudgery with the playful exuberance of an improvisational actor. In doing so, Liu gives voice to a neo-Sisyphus who laughs as his boulder recedes from the apex. Once Liu asks the reader, and himself, to ignore “that carousel on which we endlessly ride,” a sense of possibility is created despite the doom implied by the stagnant images. Liu is asking the reader to accept and enjoy the “rolling blackouts” as incidental to fate, rather than fate itself.

However, Polytheogamy attempts to challenge private and social convention with more than its political context. Included for consideration, alongside Liu’s poetry, are the selected paintings of Greg Drasler. Though serious readers of contemporary poetry may find the notion of a picture book to be gimmicky, Drasler’s illustrations are anything but superfluous. As Altieri notes, “intricate and evocative, the images also establish a powerful dialogue with several features of Liu’s style, especially the relationship between negative and positive or empty and full spaces created by shifts in perspective.”

In much the same way that Liu’s multiple “The Marriage” and “Romance” poems direct (and redirect) the reader’s attention to the unstable and evolving nature of the self struggling within these institutions, the use of Drasler’s subtly differentiated images highlight the flux of Liu’s poetic, while at the same time casting a generative cohesion over otherwise loosely related poems. For example, Drasler’s paintings, “Back Pages,” “Reading Glasses,” and “Hats Study #1,” follow the poems, “The Beauty of Anonymous Men,” “Give Me Back My Man,” and “Who Puts Us Out to Pasture,” respectively. The paintings’ central images are a sea of hat-wearing male heads, facing completely away. Liu uses the paintings to unite these poems, to collect the fragmentation, to repurpose the refuse of inevitable failure. Read separately, each poem seems to be a comment on the disparate nature of relationships formed at particular periods of life: youth, middle age, and old age. And yet the artwork that follows these poems changes only minutely: in the second drawing, one man faces away from the crowd, only to turn back again in the third painting. By emphasizing the similarity of the paintings, these poems become more than a mere testament to the impact of age on love; they suggest that relationships, regardless of their circumstantial geography on the wheel of the carousel, inherently hold the qualities of youth and maturity, of creation and destruction.

Regardless of how the poetic elite receives the inclusion of artwork in Polytheogamy, it is clear that the poetry of Timothy Liu absolutely refuses to be seen and not heard. In describing Liu’s previous work, poet Fannie Howe described his poetic sensibility as an “angry materialism, ill-fitting body, disappointment at every turn. He takes on his point of view wholeheartedly and compresses the consequences into phrases that echo and mimic each other, thereby increasing the sensation of claustrophobia and fever.” Polytheogamy can only partially fit into this description, however. While his previous work may have functioned to accentuate the “claustrophobia and fever” as its end result, this newest work dares to inject the madness back into the system that spawned its creation.

-Katie Ellison