CUTBANK REVIEWS: The Louisiana Purchase, by Jim Goar
The Louisiana Purchase
Rose Metal Press, 2011.
Reviewed by Nate Friedman
At once a nervous breakdown of word association and a love letter to the mythic American frontier, Jim Goar’s second full-length collection, The Louisiana Purchase, is both sweet and surreal; at its best, it’s a moving examination of the effect that country has on one’s interior life and personal identity, and Goar’s ability to forge emotional connections between disparate characters and concepts is exceptional.
Rose Metal Press, who published the attractive 6” by 6” collection, are self-described publishers of “hybrid genres,” and although The Louisiana Purchase is undoubtedly a collection of poetry, there is something of the fabulist in the way the series unfolds. There is a serpentine narrative in the hypnotic repetition of the series, but it’s one of associative leaps and bounds, where players like the red-faced bird, Iowa 1806, and the weeping elephant act upon an American dreamscape in fluid metamorphosis. Although the collection begins with Thomas Jefferson’s request that Meriwether Lewis “explore the Missouri River and its communications with the waters of the Pacific,” the collection’s historical impetus rapidly gives way to unhinged conceptual riffs. In the series’ second poem, we meet the recurring character of the moon while Thomas Jefferson unselfconsciouly pitches a game against the Cardinals:
President Jefferson walks off the mound. The
Cardinals take the field. Ozzie Smith falls over dead.
The crowd falls silent. Phil Niekro throws a ball at
the sky. The ball does not return. We call it the
moon. It becomes a crescent. When Jefferson holds
up two fingers, the moon breaks into the dirt. (7)
There’s something so authentic in the Dadaist historical jumble of anachronisms here and throughout the collection that the reader is willing to forgive Goar’s haphazard and frankly distracting lineation (“The/ Cardinals,” “a ball at/ the sky,” “call it the/ moon”) for his imagery being so succulent, and his freewheeling narrative so uniquely pleasurable. The appearance of major league hall of famers alongside the third President seems oddly right; it’s as if, divorced from our historical narrative’s indignities, this is in fact the authentic story of America.
And in that regard, Goar has done more with this collection than paint a surrealist portrait of an imagined landscape; he has produced an authentic myth of the America that should have been, or perhaps the myth that we deserve. Our collective history and present, all of the insecurities hoisted upon us by our cultural situation are melded in the imagination of the poet, and out of his words a unique and authentic revisionist historical narrative is spun:
A tree sprouted from my penis. The red-faced bird came to
Nest. When I found auburn leaves on my sheets I encouraged
the bird to go. It claimed squatters’ rights. I called the police.
They summoned a lumberjack. This was not the outcome
either of us desired. Now the red-faced bird visits on Tuesdays
and Thursdays. (30)
Here, the dreamlike imagery surprises and delights, but because the reader cannot fully gauge the degree to which the speaker is being serious within the context of his world, the events of the poem are discomfiting. That the speaker has no control over the “red-faced bird” invading his person is as unsettling as it is startlingly humorous. As the red-faced bird claims “squatters’ rights,” the speaker’s body becomes the American frontier itself. The inevitable march of civilization, a constant and measured undercurrent in the series, will spell the undoing of Goar’s nation of dreams.
It is through this palpable vulnerability on the part of the speaker, finally, that we are able to accept his American myth as our own. The overwhelming feeling after reading The Louisiana Purchase is one of intimate connection not only with the poet, but with America itself—not America as the political and historical narrative insist that it is or that it should be, or even as it was beyond the limits of our gridded and metered comprehension of the past, but the ethereal America that exists where landscape, dream, and language become a nation independent of precedent, one of infinite possibility.
Jim Goar was born in San Francisco, California. Since then he’s lived in Tucson, Arizona; Changsha, China; Boulder, Colorado; Bangkok, Thailand; Seoul, South Korea; Norwich, England; and whenever possible, Brevard, North Carolina. He received his MFA in prose from Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School and is completing his PhD in Critical and Creative Writing at The University of East Anglia. He edits the online Journal, past simple.
Nate Friedman is an MFA candidate at McNeese State University. He is a founder of the Ostrich Review, and his poetry and criticism have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Rattle, and storySouth.