Tremble & Shine
by Todd Colby
Soft Skull Press, 2004
You can buy it here
One of the things that irritates me to no end about some of the contemporary poetry that I read is that it vacillates from two poles: immaturity and poor snobbish experiment; both double over in false consciousness and leave the reader wondering why the hell the poet or poetess did’t have a thing to write about. I’m not saying that you can’t write about nothing, but if you are going to write about nothing, why not write about the nothing a la Emily Dickinson—you know, that dark void at the no-center of the universe that frightens us to death even when we are completely in love? Whether this failure of the imagination stems from the ennui of the workshop scene (which is my suspicion), or not, I find it as troubling as amusing. Sometimes I just want to cry out to young poetry books—get a job, get fired, go on a trip, take a lot of drugs, time to lose your virginity, lay off the dungeons and dragons, my friend— and then write your masterwork. Maybe I should take my own advice. No, I take that back; I’ve had a life strange enough.
In any case, Tremble & Shine is firmly not a book that suffers from lack of experience, though this fact is not necessarily immediate from the explicit subject of the poems. It’s more of a sense that Colby has a brain full of imaginative experience to inform and contort language. Colby’s poems are part neo-surrealist spooky—“when I wash your back with a bar of chocolate,” part Frank O’Hara in their candor—“ You love me-you know it, is etched in the atmosphere,” part Denis Johnson’s I have seen a lot of shit in my life—“you knew what you were up to / when you came into my life with the wrong attitude,” and part Sylvia Plath’s dark imagistic energy—“while the bing cherries soak in Robitussin, / my clothes sting Mrs. X—.” Note the excellent rhyme of ‘soak’ with ‘Robitussin.’ Where does Colby go, in the poem, from there?:
While the bing cherries soak in Robitussin,
my clothes sting Mrs. X—
the lady of the house, who just so happens to consume
chocolate in a sweater, in fact, she makes a wild look
but is really only indicating that it is good
to eat the cheap American chocolate—
as opposed to its outmoded and expensive one—
if expensive, to a sweet American, is a goal.
Clothes, what with the magical urge
to function in the harbor—arm over arm—
and feel the frozen fish cupped in your hands (a masquerade).
There is a half-life of a star that grows dimmer
for the stings I had installed near the wing of my heart, a louse.
The joyful fanfare is muted
by the joyless pangs of the dour and forgotten.
Her thin arms hesitate before the juice of the nude.
Holding a warm sack of glue that doubles as my keys—
rubbing a stick of Bodyglide on my neck bone—
getting ready for the pretty, a real prick.
My sense is that a lot of the poets, ones I referred to in the opening of this essay, would simply be too embarrassed to write this poem: it’s about sex; it’s about the body; it’s about—oh gasp—a relationship! “Pretty,” isn’t a narrative, exactly, but it does acknowledge an older poetic tradition making use of—another gasp—rhyme and understanding the power of the poetic line. Colby also appreciates the energy of the poetry door slamming shut in the last lines. Nevertheless, all of his poems maintain an "avant" flavor. Colby's language isn't raw but rather rugged, gritty and absurd as these lines that open the poem ‘Distorted Fins’: “a popular human scent is sandalwood because it / reminds people with sand and urine in it.”
I’m not sure what kind of life this poet has had, but it is one that can write, “I was a vandal then / marshmallows on / windshields and such, Iowa.” I’m sorry that this book came into my possession so long after its publication. Tremble & Shine is a haunting and humorous treasure and it's really worth having in your poetry collection.