Cuttings from the Tangle by Richard Buckner

Review by George Yatchisin

Richard Buckner, songwriter, singer, can open a song with the lines “Tough is as she does, won’t you slump on over and stir my shuffle down,” and you don’t get too hung up on not parsing each word exactly. Part of it is this is a song, and while the melody is simple, it’s still catchy enough in its strummy guitar way to draw you in. Part of it is Buckner sells it with his emotive baritone that helps make the somewhat odd words feel lived in. You get the emotional weight of a relationship from these lines even if you don’t get the outlines of the actors.

So now that Buckner has published his first book of verse, Cuttings from the Tangle, it’s easy to wish he could sing it to you. He might wish the same, as the book suggests “written to be read aloud” on what could be the dedication page.  Definitely come to Cuttings first and foremost for the sound, and let it loll about on your tongue some. Here are the opening lines of the book for more than a hint: “Unrestrained by the squalor of sentimental entrapment/& sworn to stay sentenced,/the congregation continues to hymn itself silly.” Sentiment is squalor for an eye as weary-yet-keen as Buckner’s—these are definitely hard-edged poems from the road—but he’s sentenced to sing them, even if he has to hammer hymn into a verb to do it.

The roots for these Cuttings are clear but multiple, so diffuse, too—of course there’s some Dylan in there, but also Bukowski, Denis Johnson, a host of the writers who share his publisher, Black Sparrow Press (from George Oppen to Ed Sanders), all awash in the sense of what rock writer Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.” There’s a great quote from an NPR interview in which Buckner claims, “If you pay more than fifty bucks for a motel, nothing interesting will happen,” and he’s busy mining the existence of those who can only afford such interesting lives. There’s barely any first person in this book, so don’t expect the confessional but rather the overheard and observed. As he puts it in the middle of one of the longer poems “as one”:

                outcomes are mere instances

fingered in tarnished luster

                slobbering in the cheers

listening to what cannot be

                accurately worded flare-ups

Those flare-ups can sometimes lead to a density that’s too opaque, though. Even Miss Stuffle from your eighth grade English class couldn’t diagram her way out of some of Buckner’s sentences, and yes, these are poems, but his defiance of grammar can leave the reader a bit untethered. His own clever phrase, “an ongoing re-beginning in aborted orbit,” might describe the issues with some of his through-lines. Many of the titles run directly into a poem’s first line, so each time we’re off to the races, finding many words hyphenated as if hugging each other for dear life, jumpstarted often into a list of participles and gerunds, all that ing-ing forcing us forward and leaving some of our thinking mind behind. It’s a word rush, if not one of sense. If only he could more consistently rein himself in like he does to kick off the more image-full poem “high”:

on a romantic flight of longing,

maneuvering loose and low to cellars

speaking-easy in spiked rounds,

challenging alley cats to short cuts,

waking gold-laméd on sidestreets

betrothed but betrayed outside

Having loved his music since 1997’s Devotion + Doubt, and then enjoying recordings as diverse as The Hill—on which he turned a host of Edgar Lee Masters’ poems from the Spoon River Anthology into a moving, folk rock song cycle—and a collaboration with Mekon Jon Langford on the casual, catchy, caustic Sir Dark Invader vs. the Fanglord, I’m more than willing to give Buckner his chance to “mount his benign philippics,” as he puts it in his author’s note. But I also might wish there were fewer tangles left uncut. For at its best, the book mirrors this arresting image from the title poem: “smooth as grits piecemeal-sporked/with a margarine nipple melting/to mask the coarse-grained bite.”