"…he was booking out in all these tank towns, playing the rotary clubs, the Kiwanis clubs, and the American Legion hall, and he just wasn't making it, but he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows and all these oranges…"
—Charles Mingus “The Clown” (as improvised and performed by Jean Shepherd)
Joe Weil’s latest poetry collection, A Night in Duluth, owes as much to Charles Mingus, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, Bert Williams, and the Sermon on the Mount, as it does to the many poetic traditions it evokes and overturns (Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams & Modernism, Charles Olson & Objectivism, Frank O’Hara & the New York School, Robert Lowell & Confessionalism, and so on). Weil is a poet in the tradition of Coyote from Native American folklore; his best poems provoke, capsize, unsettle, and upend, even as they keen, rejoice, rage, pray, and elevate. Each poem in A Night in Duluth functions as a miniature vaudeville stage, and like any good vaudeville show, each poem contains a variety of cultural spectacles which can be perceived from a variety of critical vantage points; Weil ranges from the sacred to the profane, from the working class to the neoliberal, from the puritanical to the licentious, from shtick to profundity. The watchword for Weil’s poetry, as it was for any vaudeville act, is variety. From the motley, from the variegated, and from the broken, Weil assembles a space in which he might examine issues of American identity. It is within this true swing state—as Weil shifts between registers, syntaxes, idioms, and dictions—where issues of diversity, tolerance, democracy, and the worth of the individual might be articulated, challenged, erased, elided, and, finally, partially, understood.
A Night in Duluth reads as a fractal narrative (as if Samuel Beckett had worked in a factory for twenty years, then sat in an easy chair watching Horse Feathers on an infinite loop, and recorded his thoughts with a golf course pencil in verse on the back of a Sears and Roebuck parlor guitar), each poem built upon digressions and unfolding in a string of gags, non sequiturs, and associational leaps, not unlike a comic routine. Weil’s poem, “Things I Hate,” provides a good example of how meaning skitters and scuttles into being throughout the collection. The first half of the poem reads:
Hate being busy
hate others going on and on about being busy
hate the business of being busy
hate how people in America are even busy
Hate the schedules of reflection.
Hate the fucking schedules
hate the lists, the doing of this
and the undoing of that
hate that I can’t lick the freckle from my nose
and swallow it and turn into a field of wild mushrooms
hate that no one ever gives me a big waxy turnip
and says, “Here pal, here’s a big
Hate that all the good surprises
in my life lie behind me like so many
run over squirrels—their fluffy tails
combed by the wind, crushed by
an 18 wheeler driven by an asthmatic who
has a pair of lucky sunglasses
(which he just lost)
hate that some positive thinker might
stand in the middle of this poem and say:
“How do you know all the good surprises
in your life lie behind you?”
This fractal lyric embodies the strategies and preoccupations of Weil’s work as a whole. “Things I Hate” exemplifies the incantatory momentum present everywhere in A Night in Duluth, propelled by the anaphora of ideation as much as by anaphora itself. Weil loafs and invites his soul to philosophize with a hammer, to inveigh against “the schedules of reflection” you might scroll through on Facebook and reaffirm on Twitter. Weil’s most apparent concern in “Things I Hate,” and everywhere else in this collection, is to overturn pieties, to lob a metapoetic Looney Tunes turnip into the clockwork of his own words, to perform a Duck Soup mirror dance between the Joe Weil who worked as a toolmaker and shop steward for twenty years in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the Joe Weil who works as a University professor today in upstate New York. However, Weil’s ulterior, omnipresent, and most pressing concern is to articulate his vision of a Eucharistic reality in which the lowly, the unsought, the downtrodden, and the wrecked are uplifted in the hard-fought duende and earned communion of poetry.
For all of the searing and diffuse cultural critiques found in A Night in Duluth, the collection reveals itself constantly in its deep intimacy and vulnerability. Time and again throughout the book, poems slough off their glossolalia, and shed any ironic (or conventional, or sophisticated) conception of “voice,” as Weil steps forth. Weil writes as a father and husband, confronting mortality, attempting to explain himself, his love, and his existence, to his wife and to his young children. As Weil notes in “Farewell (Again)”:
I came into the world to be—
to be slaughtered, but I forgot
to be childless, to be expendable.
I write this poem so that my children
will understand. I loved them. It
is nothing incredible. It is
a bowl of sugar encircled by bees
in a diner where the food
may not have been very good, and the service
stank. I spent my life in such places.
These are the insights of a man who has pursued his enthusiasms through an odyssey of dead end jobs and nightshifts, who fell in love with poetry because he was already in love with the world, who wants only to tell the sky that it has been handcuffed to a rose, and who announces in every line: “Yes, I am an origin of lilac.” These are also the insights of a perpetual outsider, a man who knows, as the poet Joe Salerno did, that “poetry is the art of not succeeding.”
Notwithstanding his insights as an outsider, Weil is a consummate showman, for whom a virtuoso performance might equally come either from reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich or from contemplating a line of bad poetry written by an undergraduate student. Weil, the showman, understands, along with P.T. Barnum, that the foundation of all American show business is the practical joke. The hunger for the implausible—the charm in “charms,” the romance of the unreal—drives us to the sideshow. As our convictions break apart like Pangea, Weil encourages us to dial the light and to see beyond the pixel, to gather paradise in arnica, eyebright, ragweed, and the Queen Anne ’s lace bouquet of unromantic daily love. In “Fire Birds” Weil warns:
Soon they will come for
me with peace cleavers
and serenity axes
their yoga pants outlawed
They will say, “You’re not
They will cut my throat
Here, Weil places in dialogue the avatars of white middle class liberalism with the fascism of the far right. In a culture where “everyone wants something new,” and no one can agree on the facts, Weil embraces old umbers and magentas the color of rain water; he argues for the sound of gas from a burner flicking on in a memory of a place you once called home. A Night in Duluth is full of such simple pleasures, and, as William Carlos Williams was fond of remarking at poetry readings: “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t poetry.” With Joe Weil, it’s always a pleasure and it’s always poetry.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.