A review of Pale Townie by Tom Will
Tom Will has written some of the only pleasing poetry of our unpoetic moment, because his poems are wet and alive like fish just freed from the hook, and they swim in electric diamantine patterns despite (or because of?) the atrazine in the water. Pale Townie is T. Will's best work so far, as he, sweating from exertion, correctly observes to a starstruck interviewer in the introduction to the book-length poem, which uses the end rhymes of the titular poem (supposedly composed by John Shade) that is the main channel of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. Pale Townie does not mimic its model's extensive commentary and index (accredited to Charles Kinbote), which weaken its impact in comparison to Nabokov’s ur-mastery of language and form. Nonetheless, it is in turn clever and strikingly tragic, beautiful and dense, and I didn't quite tire of it over three readings. The same cannot be said of most art or content of the day: Fishtank's frank reflection of the front-camera glow-worm crawl, dull TV's Succession with aesthetically numb if Shakespearean set-ups, or the alt-philistine’s magazine-like podcasts.
Pale Townie's titular hero skids into a winter lake, and while sinking reflects on [lost] love. But the poem does not rely on the cliched 'wounds, charms, and ardors' that Nabokov so abhorred. He filched that phrase from Alexander Pope, who was also a major inspiration for the poem portion of Pale Fire (and the subject of that poet's ostensible author, John Shade's, non-fiction study). Nabokov missed the ‘specific, unpoetic detail' in Pope's contemporaries' sentimental generalities. T. Will's poem has plenty such details: fucking in the dark near an oil pipeline’s floodlights, ham radio, an altar boy with locked knees, cheap coffee and “aspirin drops fed to a heart’s thin / Apple crust; shaving a candle’s sugar wick.” But if not sentimental, they are sensitive and perhaps nostalgic. These facets of lost love's other world crumble like pastry into bitter Dunkin' dregs, only sugar white paper now willing to receive the broken couple's once shared language. But of course, paper cannot converse. So the Townie writes his vision to life, and so doing, saves himself from drowning in grief. Love can be lost, and so too will, but Tom's soggy townie chose to write. A poem is a 'backwards kind of thought', salmon swimming upstream in VT, a private language for the reader's eye instead of the lover’s ear.
Worry not: Pale Townie uses plum poetic technique to bridge the subjective and its audience. Pleasantly, the poem does not employ the lovesick neuroses of a Poe or a Proust, despite using a crystal to refract their light. Even in death-throes, the Townie echoes his more lively references: film noir, Dante, Rabelais, Tiresias’ song, and the French new wave. Less regular but more cutting than his literary and filmic touchpoints are his regional ones, like “fog and ivy and blood; and my same / Blood too; all droplets in the shaker’s war…” Lox leaping across twill shorts, northeastern references form a roe then line a diamond; there are many more gems but I will spare you an inane list.
Pale Fire’s commentary is authored by Charles Kinbote who is 'exiled’. The townie is so called because he never leaves in the first place. For this, the townie maintains an especial power, and this is why such specific, unpoetic details about townie life glimmer: Kinbote (supposedly) had a heritage to be killed for. The forgotten townie will never be a hero to the grimy, post-industrial slush, but he has his freedom to live for—and his imagination to live by. ‘They’ may kill him, but he comes back to life, because his life is his word, his creation, and it is thus entirely his, if he can avoid drowning it (in drink).
Nabokov wouldn't have been sentimental and therefore easy on an inspiré; he had many. He himself employed formal mimicry, and his prickly plum pride would likely approve the stolen hat, gloves, and end rhymes. But purple prose doesn't pass muster; in Nabokov each turn of phrase and alliterative reference are clues to the true heart of the story, and the true story's multikarat solution. That is, they function sometimes as deliberate elements of plot and world-building, and sometimes in a metafictional mode, training the reader to read and think better by sending them searching for gold in a creek rife with red herrings.
Herring are seafaring, but our Pale Townie's lake is full of fish. They do not seem to form a coordinated school while Nabokov's often do. But the delicate hook is sharply whittled and shines brighter than TV's LED. Does a golden ray cut through the poem and illuminate Pale Townie's lost heart, the cable box of its lifeblood? Not that I found. This is my only disappointment with the book: to borrow Pale Fire's structure and end rhymes but not to employ a multi-layered mystery like it does is a tease. If I have misread, and there is a metafictional mystery in Pale Townie, it differs from Pale Fire's in a crucial sense: it is not an obvious question with a buried answer, it is a buried question with a further buried answer.
Nabokov is often considered undemocratic for his aristocratic vocabulary and imagery (because democracy was of course invented to protect the masses from intricate complexity and other singular, and therefore scary, modes of excellence). But he is not as blithe with undirected whorls of reference and metaphor as many modernists, and his best works, Pale Fire prime among them, present very clearly and quickly some core enigmas (though not their solutions). In Pale Fire: Is Kinbote who he says he is? What of the buried treasure and the non-theoretical death of the author? Which author, anyways? In just one reading, numerous multifaceted solutions to these questions tumble down the mountain like minerals from a miner's toppled haul. Many more stay buried.
In Pale Townie, the questions are more vague, and therefore so are T. Will's answers, and without a metafictional structure this townie lacks Nabokovian eternal readability. Nabokov's x marks-the-spot vaults itself upstream, Townie's wills itself to the surface of the lake. The bright light of its bijou is refracted through the deluge's azure weight, though it still overpowers most contemporary poets I've read in lively language, sense-making, volcanic pride of tone, and emotional evocation. To take from Nabokov is to learn from Nabokov, one of the first writers to effectively express revelation in 'real' ‘time’. Mystery is the language of lovers. Art is its translation to others. The waxwing avoids the glass but skims the water, which at such speeds can be as unforgiving, but more glimmering.
Title: Pale Townie
Author: Tom Will
Publisher: Apocalypse Confidential
Release Date: July 7th