Plunk, by Tom C. Hunley. WSC Press, 2015. $16, 67 pages.
Why isn’t Tom C. Hunley a household name? We know Airwick and the Dyson Ball, but why isn’t Hunley, the author of four full-length books of poetry as well as the vocalist/rhythm guitarist for Dr. Tom and the Cartoons, as familiar? Perhaps he’s not as funny as Jerry Seinfeld, but he’s certainly one of America’s funniest poets.
His titles, for instance, are open doors into one raucous party after another: “Still Life with Laugh Track,” “Moonhandled,” “Wives of the Poets,” “At the Afterlife Bar and Grill,” “More than One Cup of Gas Station Coffee” demonstrate the typical panache of his new collection, Plunk.
In “Um”—a characteristically self-mocking title—the poet admits that, “I don’t understand how I got here any more than a lobster understands how it ended up in a tank” in a Chinese restaurant, with “cruelly beautiful women pointing at us.” Like the lobster, he is vexed by a sense of dread, not to mention by a sense of his own inadequacy:
at least once a day
I realize that whatever I’ve been saying
isn’t the point at all.
No telling its source, this sense of inadequacy makes dealing with life’s complexities almost impossible. As he notes in “While We Were on Fire, Our Shadows Glided on Water,” “Sometimes I get as lost in myself as in Kafka’s novels.” Hunley in hell would be cast into the same pit as Steven Wright and Woody Allen, those other comic philosophers, where they would continue shoulder-shrugging their way through an even more extreme version of the existential predicament.
Hunley’s is a dramatic, not a lyric, sensibility. He takes quotidian language and shape-shifts it to suit his aesthetic needs, inserting the telling adjective or adverb, twisting a conventional phrase. “Home is where the heart attack is,” he tells us in a poem with the imposing title “What Can be Said about the Beautiful-from-a-Distance Elegant Etcetera in the Broken Syllables of our Imperfect Tongues?” and we nod as we blanch. Similarly, we recognize our own tendency to self-indulgence when he remarks in “Psalm on a Theme by Dean Young and a Somewhat Similar Theme by Allen Ginsberg” that “I’ve wandered forty years in the desert / of my mind.”
Many things, even the most unthreatening, move him to fear. In “Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds,” he admits, “Breakfast always takes me to the / edge of the tallest, darkest cliff.” He elaborates:
eggs sunny-side up . . . always remind me that
eventually the sun will burn out or
else an asteroid will collide with our sweet
This is philosophical poetry, even as he makes fun of both poetry and philosophy. “I wanted, / I guess, to show you something about impermanence,” he insists in a poem with the uncharacteristically short title “Permanent,” but then immediately undercuts himself. “I wanted, ironically, to make a lasting impression on the subject.” Ambition and self-deception are two sides of the same debased coin. The arid solipsism of the American individualist has rarely been so keenly expressed as in “Speaking of Falls” when he declares: “And the loneliness that blew through us was not even our own.”
He’s a sad sack, but not one who seeks our pity. He’s self-centered perhaps but also self-observant. In “Shallow” he confesses, “He knew his problems were only / a foot deep.”
Hunley is funniest, perhaps, when he adopts that most forlorn of all literary personae, the English teacher. In “Wives of the Poets,” for instance, the teenagers in his class take the measure of the great American poets and find them lacking. “Maybe he took the road with too much traffic,” comments one student. “Thirteen ways of looking at a jackass,” suggests another. Another pair of students use the same technique to interrogate their own relationship: “So much depends upon you flirting with my roommate,” he charges. She rebuts, “Not ideas about the cheapskate but the cheapskate himself.”
Hunley is a trafficker in white-male indeterminacy, as popularized by writers like Bob Hickok, Mark Halliday, and David Kirby. Through them we witness the cultural eclipse of white-male privilege. In “Where My Name Comes From,” Hunley tells us that Dylan Thomas “drank himself to death, which / I tried to do when I was younger, succeeding only in killing my unhappy twin.” That other Tom Hunley is the poet’s swaggering, staggering, self-confident doppelgänger, relic of an outmoded literary manner. “Had he survived, he would be forty today / and I don’t think he would recognize me.”
Life is filled with hungers which are never satisfied and which end only with our disappearance. In “Thaw,” for instance, the new Tom Hunley summarizes his world view:
And now, early in my
forty-second February, I feel like
a snowman, as if tomorrow, I’ll be nothing
but a carrot, a pipe, and ashes where two
charcoal eyes sat before somebody squirted them
with light fuel and struck a match.
His is an emptiness that recalls Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”
Again and again throughout this otherwise charming and infectious collection, the reader encounters a deflationary impulse; Hunley shows us a sublimely indifferent universe letting the air out of inflated hopes and self-regard. Consider the following, from “Eight Bits Usually Equals One Byte:”
Class, a poet named Keats said we should write about mysteries,
uncertainties, and doubts without any irritable reaching
after fact, and then he got TB and died at twenty-six.
Hunley worries about aging—he recently passed 40—while also acknowledging a chaotic and reckless youth. Yet, he maintains an ironic distance from that earlier avatar. Painfully self-conscious, he’s aware that his readers are probably not interested in his adolescent escapades. He offers instead the lapsed sincerity of the post-confessional poet. All the tropes of meta-fiction and post-modernism—indeterminacy, self-reference, alternative endings, willful artificiality, and eccentric learning—stand ready to upset the ego’s apple-cart.
His diagnosis of the human condition is dire; yet, there is more than one consolation in his art. In payment for our willingness to follow him through some of the grittier alleys of self-absorption, we receive an invitation to self-awareness and the chance to laugh at ourselves.
Lee Rossi’s latest book of poems is Wheelchair Samurai. He is a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers; his reviews have appeared widely, in venues such as Poetry International, Smartish Pace, the Los Angeles Review and The Pedestal Magazine.