Way back in the book-writing era, Plato wrote about the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” If the quarrel seemed old to Plato while writing The Republic, to make it seem new in 2008 requires some serious ingenuity. In his inventive first book, Garage, Aaron Fagan seems to be the poet for the job. Like Plato, Fagan is interested in definitions: what kind of philosophizing in a poem is an unearned indulgence, while another sort of philosophizing might qualify as art.
Fagan’s sly humor is key to making this debate seem new and necessary. In “Oceanic,” he declares there is no need for poetry to address “how inarticulate we are.” So, he muses in his next stanza, why not be happy “leaving in a line like— / What will my dog do to retain my attention?” This unexpected leap between the attention-getting ploys of poetry and those of Fagan’s dog is clever but also insightful. Artists want attention, pets want attention, but only the latter can risk looking pathetic and get away with it. Where Plato was concerned with the ways poetry could be dangerous, Fagan’s worry, in 2008, is embarrassment.
Throughout the book, one gets the feeling that Fagan approaches the writing of poetry with a constant fear of humiliation. In “Resistentialism,” he describes sitting in a field and sensing all the writing and ideas that likely preceded him: “Ghost lines, of those who came before me, / took over as if they were in the wind, carrying / only the particularly bad ideas that had ever been / expressed there—right to the spot I was sitting….” Again, Fagan manages to come off in this stanza as inventive and funny but also capable of taking on a larger question, this time how to write and take the risks that make for lasting art when one feels paralyzed by the possibility of repeating what’s already been done, and done badly. Despite Fagan’s awareness of the field’s openness “crowded with sentimentality,” he works a number of moments of earnest emotion into the book. The short poem “Together” is particularly strong in the way it juxtaposes a shared bed with the solitude of self-doubt: “Somehow we manage / To find ourselves—lying tangled up in / Separate failures and / Blankets and fumbling / Nightly for each other….”
In a few poems, Fagan tips the scale a little too far, ending a poem with a “hug” or “tears.” Still, one closes the book admiring him for having the boldness to include a few turns of earnestness among his quirky meditations on porno projectors and surfing in the living room. In the first poem of the collection, “Come and Get It,” Fagan gets the balance between pathos and irony just right. He starts out: “You could care less, I could care less. So / We have something common. Walk down / This moderately metaphorical hall with me.” The poem goes on to leap from a dead cat filled with maggots to a statement about hope and an appeal to the reader to consider “breaking a law today.” Few poets publishing debut collections risk this many shifts in tone in a single line, from dark image to earnest optimism to irreverent irony.
As much as Plato attacked poetry, he recognized something vital about a rhetorical stance made lyric; that vitality is sharply present in the questions and turns of thought in Garage. Fagan both considers the “laws” of poetry and breaks them, a mix that has made for an excellent first book.