Acid-Wash Jeans and Handbag House Anthems: A Review of Randall Mann’s Stunning New collection A Better Life (Persea Press)
Randall Mann is the author of four previous books of poetry, Proprietary, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and the Northern California Book Award, as well as a book of criticism, The Illusion of Intimacy : On Poetry and co-author of the textbook Writing Poems. He lives in San Francisco.
During this current pandemic, Randall Mann conjures the ghost of the last one, thereby drawing parallels between the two. Like in the mirroring and repetitive lines of his clever pantoums and palindrome poems, he seems to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the economic lines of “Florida Again” Mann pinpoints a long-gone gay era by the use of carefully picked items: the acid wash jeans. So very specific. In “True Blue,” he is a trickster wordsmith who just can’t help his punning and sonic dexterity:
I pick out
The reader has the feeling that these half-rhymes, internal rhymes, and clangs aren’t sought out by the poet, but that they come to him in a flow, like rap.
In “Rhapsody,” the skinny, concise verses march down the page and skitter across the ears in a methamphetamine frenzy:
So very sharp. Mann renders the HIV-positive sex scene with minimal words (blue pills), and deftly indicates the passage of time with judicious image choice (receding hairline). This is the first and only time you will ever experience Doxycycline used perfectly as a verb, by the way.
“Executive Order” is a pantoum in form, and “RSVP” is just one stanza of a Shakespearean sonnet, but the reader knows that Mann absolutely has the classical chops to carry off the whole thing, if he wanted to. This poet doesn’t flash about his obvious formal poetic skills, but employs form when and where it suits, as is right.
There’s nothing like a really specific tune to recall an exact point in time, and Mann does just that with Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.” The sweaty dance floor and the e-pills: 1990s San Francisco is brought to life in all its gaudy and desperate late-20th century glory.
“Middle Manager” is a hymn to the closeted, but skews without bitterness, and “Extra” is hilarious in its self-deprecating humor as the poet is employed as a “hot guy” extra, then dismissed from a film set. In “Anecdote of an Ex,” the pantoum form amplifies the vapidity of the appearance-obsessed and is casually cruel in its obsessive race towards physical perfection, which is never-ending and can never be achieved. In “Long Beach,” the life of the poet’s grandfather, with all its attendant bitterness and regret over a long stretch of history, is encapsulated well in a brief, economical poem, which is one of the most successful pieces in a collection of very good poems.
“A New Syntax” is a quartet or crown of pantoums, which uses repetition to good effect as it shows how the mind repeats ideas, and how history has a habit of recreating itself. The killer line in a collection full of killer lines could very well be in “Playboy”:
It’s always 1978 in the pages of Playboy
It’s always 1991 in the universe of A Better Life, but it’s also simultaneously 1981, 2001, 2011 and 2021.
You can purchase A Better Life by Randall Mann from Persea Books here.
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