What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other
by Jeffrey Schultz
The University of Georgia Press, 2014; 88 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Jeffrey Schultz’s National Poetry Series-winning collection What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other needs our attention almost as much as it demands our suspension of disbelief. Because how is it possible that so much meditation over so many seemingly disparate fragments of life, so much frustration, so much hope for our world to finally find its course correction can fit into a single book, let alone a single poem?
This is not a book for the weak of heart or mind. These are long-lined, long poems that want to find all the answers. Their fullness can feel at first overwhelming, particularly in the J. poems, where J., a character modeled after Ernesto Trejo’s E., questions the nature of the world. The book opens with “J. Begins by Saying The World’s Not as It Should Be,” a reflection caught up in a series of would’s and could’s that doubt the possibility of maintaining connected to friends. This is J. at his most sincere and nostalgic:
It would have been nice
If we’d lived closer together. We could see each other sometimes,
not have to worry over someone to feed the cat, talk to him a little,
Water the plants, keep an eye on all these things. But that’s it:
I can only imagine, and no better than I can imagine anything,
Which means, as I sit here looking out of your skull,
It’s the frames of my own glasses at the blurred edge
Of our vision.
The poem ends with J. telling of a dream of a beautiful country that has since vanished: “And I tell you, I miss that place. I wish I could say just / Where we should go. O, my country, my lost and human country.” The lament takes on an even deeper sense of loss as we read the (unfortunate) title of the book’s next section: There’s No Telling How Long This Will Take.
J. has only so much patience and control, especially after working as a telemarketer in “J. Learns the Difference between Poverty and Having No Money” and trying to sell an Executive Dining Club membership to a woman who’s only response is: “My husband’s been killed.” The moment is as revealing to him as it is brutal for her.
The J. poems don’t return until the book’s titular closing section where he does his damnedest to devastate us with how keenly he observes our continued dysfunction. But it’s hard not to see the soul poems—like “The Soul as Social Service Caseworker,” “The Soul as a Kind of Life I Sort of Lived Once,” and “The Soul as Episode in the Supermarket,” among others—as connected to J. who’s become embittered enough to “act” in “J. Steals from the Rich and Uses the Money to Get Drunk Again,” committing the passive-aggressive “raid on their children’s college funds” by being a not-quite-helpful English composition adjunct and “debating whether to add his name to another online petition.”
Yet, J. plays the cynic only adequately; this is not who he is. Scratch him, and we’ll find a disappointed idealist. Or read him in “J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change nor Small Bills,” for that matter:
there was something supposed to become more
Perfect, something else about what always comes of tyrants,
but who knows? In mourning we meet in need,
But here in a circle at last, tell me what ridiculous things
we could possibly ask of each other. Spare a buck?
Sing a littler prayer for me? The overcast buckles
under the weight of a singed and empty sky. Because
There’s next to nothing left, America, call our
name; please, won’t you please lay on your hands?
J.’s pleas remind us that although our union hasn’t yet become more complete, more ideal, we must keep at our pursuit for perfection, no matter how long it may take. We might be frustrated and lose hope at times, but this voice, this book, has us remember our larger truth: our better angels are still here to do their work.