Mann’s Contrarian Propriety

by Dec 7, 2017Book Reviews

As a poet, it’s hard to read Randall Mann’s Propriety without feeling a little anger at the author. I say this not because it’s a poor book of poems, but because it’s astonishingly good. So good, in fact, it’s my sad duty to somehow articulate to you the many-layered reasons why Proprietary, Randall’s fourth and latest book of poems, belongs on your bookshelf. (Or, perhaps, neatly tucked into your bag for retrieval at a moment’s notice.)

For starters, though there are many themes in this book, at least one or five will resonate with just about anyone. Proprietary is all at once both a juxtaposition of two ends of the country, California and Florida, as well as a gutting look into the US corporate culture. (And, well, everything else in between.)

One minute we’re in SF lamenting that This town is full of suits/none of them in suits. (from ‘Blue-Sky Thinking’). The next moment we’re back in Orlando secretly buying bisexual porn.

The subjects of these poems are never scolded, but rather always depicted with a hauntingly authentic hand; with each description comes an almost frustratingly clear insight: Your idea of slumming it was eating pho/in the Inner Richmond, every noodle. (From “Fashion”)

At the heart of this book is an unapologetic look into lifestyle: whether it be drugs, sex, location, job, and sometimes all of these ideas mashed together! What is evident, however, is that Mann does not believe that there is one right way to live life; instead of convincing of us of that, he’d rather ask the reader to examine what judgments we hold about the way others live their lives. He further asks us to look at the unsavory moments of our past and see just how much they actually shaped who we are and find the beauty in them.

Mr. Mann’s poem ‘Gainesville’ is probably my favorite poem in the book that truly captures this idea. I’d originally intended to quote it, but it’s better read as a whole.

Finally, what stands above his authentic gaze into our lives and the lives of the speaker, his family, and lovers, is the musicality he deftly masters in every single poem. Modern poets often shy away from rhymes altogether, but Mr. Mann is as fearless a poet I’ve ever seen. This fearlessness pays off in spades, as I often found myself re-reading his poems aloud to appreciate the beautiful cadence:

they formally meet,

before they go
back to the lodge
and do what they do

better than life,
they have a little snowball fight,
brief, unexpectedly sweet —

like children in the street.

(From Leo & Lance)

All in all, Proprietyis a rule-breaking volume that is decidedly contrary to its name.

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