Panic Attack, USA establishes Nate Slawson as a poet to pay attention to. In a recent interview with Slawson, Brad Liening describes him as “the poet laureate of a tiny city-state with no official borders and a dozen or more national anthems everyone knows by heart.” This description captures both the collection’s strong points and its challenge areas. The sense of play and wildness offered in these poems, along with its infectious rhythms, make individual poems worthwhile, yet when extended over the entire collection these same traits begin to wear thin. Even filled with short-lined compact poems, one hundred pages starts to turn what could have been a well-wrought urn into a stack of disposable Gladware.
In the poem “You Are Saxophone,” part of the “Teenage Sonnets” section of fifteen “unsonnet sonnets,” Slawson’s jazzy voice is on fine display with lines like “Is not your soul/ a tiny jukebox” and
be like thunderous rain
like wasps in
a coffee can & thou
nettles& dry river-
bed thou sermon
of fire sister & we
hymnal of matchsticks?
It moves us along quickly from quirky analogy to quirky analogy and we want to keep up with the train of thought so as not to miss a moment. Slawson treats the reader to poems of a Berrymanesque rambling lucidity. “I Become Track Five on My Afghan Whigs Mixtape” has a mouthy vulnerability as the speaker proclaims “the daylight is a hospital bed” and wants “the concrete driveway to be a trampoline.” This is a speaker, like many in the collection, searching for comfort in an uncomfortable world. And where does the speaker’s comfort (and discomfort) come from? Love.
The collection consists primarily of love poems, but not love poems you’d want to receive on Valentine’s Day. The male gaze is a time-honored tradition in poetry, but these poems take it to a grotesquely visceral level that may bring out the Liz Lemon in readers. Lines such as “if the moon/ between your thighs/ makes you feverish/ or dark purple plumage” from “You Are the Scenery” and “I’m the preacher getting delicious / inside your church” from “My B-Side Is Sentimental” could have you saying “shut it down” and trying to wash it all from your mind. Sometimes the images are shocking merely for the sake of being shocking, such as when the speaker of “String Theory” says “I just don’t give a shit but please let me / carry my eyes in your backpack or something.” Although endearing at first, the wild voice of the collection corners you and asks you to wait for it to calm down, to start making sense, to become something other than a friend who calls you at 2AM, drunk in a dumpster looking for advice.
Even as the voice loses its charm, the themes become more appealing throughout the book. The collection has two recurring paradoxical images of the beloved: that she is both comfort and stability (most often seen as a hospital bed) as well as a source of positive movement and change (often depicted as a river). There is complex thinking in these poems that is often made inaccessible to the reader by the “crazy young artist” tone.
There are few moments for the reader to stop and soak them in. We think we might be getting a break with “The Field Trip” and “We Are a Map of the Midwest” which have more standard grammatical construction and linear thinking than many of the other poems. But right after the brief respite from the quick and crazy voice, we are right back in the fray with the comparatively long poem “My Band Will be Named Your Name” and that originally felt like a joy ride now seems terrifying as we realize the brakes have gone out. As Goethe has said, “It is in working within limits that the master reveals himself,” and this collection could benefit from some structure and boundaries to reassure the reader that the poet has control over the voice and not the other way around. Although some of the poems are called “sonnets,” the term seems to be used loosely, lacking the typical voltas and argument-based format of the form. Other poems are called “essays,” yet I can’t quite figure out how they differ from the other poems. This may be a failing on my part, the voice of the poems could be blocking may way into other intricacies of the work.
Is it a failing of the poems or my failing as a reader? In poetry, as in love, one tends to blame the other guy. For me, the out-of-control voice and graphic (and yet somehow still inaccurate) sexual imagery are deal-breakers in my relationship with Panic Attack, USA. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, there’s enough in this first collection to warrant keeping an eye on Nate Slawson, and not just because his speakers sometimes go Charlie Sheen stalkerish and you don’t want to turn your back on a guy who says, “I am a tiger with blood” and, “you are the landscape/ I’d carve into my wrist / with a pocketknife.” Beneath all the posturing, there’s a skilled craftsman of metaphor and a poet of unique, heartfelt insights. If Slawson can find a way to play to these strengths more without losing his voice, he may have a shot at becoming a poetic rival for John Berryman.
—Jennifer Schomburg Kanke