Poetry has become something of a literary cul-de-sac for most people. There’s a reason for that: most modern poetry is either excessively intellectual (T. S. Eliot and his ilk) or excessively wow-look-at-how-outré-I-can-be (Ginsburg and followers). Both camps come across as if they possess deep wisdom and insights into mystery that the common folk can’t possibly comprehend.
Sorry, whether you’re Mitt Romney or Ezra Pound, an elitist is an elitist and I have no use for you.
Garage poetry is a loose genre consisting of aspiring poets who attempt to remedy this situation the same way Nirvana blasted through the overproduced garbage that people listened to throughout the 1980’s with In Utero and Nevermind. Unfortunately, most garage poetry also winds up in a cul-de-sac as well, simply because many wannabe poets don’t have the sensual talent required to create great poetry. They’re often loud and love to draw attention to outrageous rearrangements of syntax, but most of the time, there is no there there.
Fortunately, we now have Ara Harris, whose first collection, Original Soundtrack Not Available, is now available at Lulu.com. Ms. Harris is a woman with sincere sensual talent, a keen awareness of absurdity and, most importantly, restrained but powerful empathy for many of the lost and lonely characters she creates.
Original Soundtrack Not Available is primarily a collection of prose poems. Some are obviously autobiographical, but Ms. Harris maintains a solid aesthetic distance between subject and object in those situations, without turning too cold in the process. Many of the best poems deal with the sensual-emotional experience of growing up in a boring-as-shit place—places that most of us who grew up in them want to forget. Ms. Harris’ remarkable talent is that she awakens our memory through exceptional sensual description so that we learn that no, life wasn’t entirely dead in the burbs and backwaters; even though the situations seem small and silly in comparison, they were what we knew as life.
You get this right from the start with two brilliant pieces, “Death in a Small Town” and “Welcome Home, Population 3000.” Ms. Harris nails the essence of the experience with lines like “Anything tastes like small town, when you drink it out of Tupperware” and “the fence around your house looks like braces around teeth that don’t mind being crooked” and “He took so much time; now he’s suddenly late for nothing.” The tone is remarkably free of judgment without being devoid of feeling; the experiences simply exist. Like many of the characters who inhabit these towns, they do not self-reflect, they do not see anything wrong, they simply move on to the next predictable experience. While this is why perceptive sensualists have to leave these towns, the poet needs to remember that physical distance is there to help create an aesthetic distance so that when you tell us about your experience, we don’t drown in a flood of unprocessed emotions. Ara Harris gets that: yeah, the experienced sucked, but this isn’t about me—it’s about us. Other poems in the book reinforce this exceptional talent—“Get Your Ticket,” “Fresh Cut Grass” and “The Park After Rain.”
Her poetic vignettes about relationships and encounters are also compelling: “Temporary Amnesia,” “Pixilated,” “Thirty-Seconds,” and “A Good Movie.” There also two powerful poems that may be thematically out-0f-context, but sync beautifully with Ms. Harris’ narrative and sensual talent: “Unholy Cost” and “Last Seen Coming Home on Time.” These gave me the confidence that while Ms. Harris could likely make a career out of being the “poet of the shitty small town,” she has the intellect and curiosity to broaden her horizons.
Personally, I hope she follows whatever butterfly crosses her path, because gifts like hers are rare. Original Soundtrack Not Available is not a perfect collection of poems; after all, this his her first book. Some of the urban poems come across flat; that may be because the genre has become flooded. The photo poem could have used a higher quality printer. Quibbles aside, I hope that the experience of sharing this first book with the public will be a validating one that gives Ara Harris the confidence to keep reflecting, feeling, perceiving . . . and writing.