Monday, February 22, 2010

A Million in Prizes

In some ways, Carl Phillips' selection of Justin Marks' A Million in Prizes as the winner of the 2009 New Issues Poetry Prize is a surprise, and not because the poems disappoint. Taken as a whole, the book reads more like three distinct chapbooks rather than a cohesive utterance. In fact, the book's structure mimics this: split into three parts--one part poems, one part long poem, one part prose poems. The best of these sections is, by far, the last. Marks' prose poems are both wonderful and strange; and they're also comic and tragic at times, often to the point that his voice makes it difficult to distinguish between the two. One paragraph of "The Detonator Always Has a Red Button" is particularly emblematic: "What's most important to me now is water, my complexion, and urinating. In bed last night, I kept my genitals to myself." Clearly, a sense of playfulness and mild nonsense characterizes these lines. But it's difficult to know how, exactly, we're meant to interpret that last sentence, which is precisely what makes it so great. Yet, the line also resonates. After we're done laughing, we wonder what emotional register resides beneath the humor: Desperation? Loneliness? Other poems contemplate the dilemma of interpretation itself. "Last Year's Model" is a poem more about the tremulous relationship we, as humans, have with language and less about being outdated: "I have this idea, but then I have to make the language. Which is more a reflection of the spirit of the market than anything else. On the palms of my hands are the words, Love me." And that's what makes Marks' poems, when they're good, really good--his ability to make the comic something worth returning to, and not because it's a veil for the truth, but because it's the truth itself. Thus, he asks questions many of us have long been asking ourselves, in quiet moments: "All I can say is, Where have I been my whole life?" Only he does this loudly. With laughter and unease in the background. Maybe a cocktail in hand. And some music overheard in the parking lot. If only these moments occurred with greater frequency. They will: This is, after all, a first book.

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