Juliana Converse on The Book of Treasures

It could be the anteater figures in David Nichols’ surreal, Ralph Steadman-meets-Richard-Scarry illustrations, or the “yes, and” philosophy driving this collaboration, but The Book of Treasures from Dustin Junkert and Shane Moritz often feels like a booby-trapped walk-through of a carnival funhouse guided by a pair of vaudevillian tricksters. They quip: “The new town fit him like a sentence about an old shirt. / A death sentence about an old shirt.” They challenge and mock our expectations with comedic, sleight-of-hand maneuvers and impeccable timing; “Dad had seen men at their lowest in Korea. / Lowest not so much because it was in Korea / as that it was in a time of war.” The two poets’ voices blend or peck at one another’s on the page as they lead us on an occasionally campy, sometimes troubling, frequently hilarious journey through sculpture gardens and HOA meetings.

This book from Verse Chorus Press is the lovechild of two poets who met in grad school, where they would have been in the throes of hair-tearing revision sessions as they blew off steam at the pub after class. Citing the influence of their professor, Laura Newbern, the poet behind the celebrated collection, Love and the Eye, the two writers adapted an Exquisite Corpse-like activity of writing collaboratively.

One of the effects of both poets’ voices intruding and building on each other is that the tone is frequently self-conscious or self-reflexive. The poets accomplish the daunting task of playing with a schizo approach to storytelling by creating a singular consciousness that plays with and subverts the form while exploring personal, intimate experiences. It is not unlike visiting an old married couple who gently interrupts and corrects each other’s narratives. In fact, the introduction uses overwritesto describe each writer’s contributions to the poems. Since it’s not as if we can see the scrawlings in blue and red pen, I might have assumed that the poet was a singular entity. But while the individual poets’ voices may blend on the page, one notices telling details that one would only recognize if one were, say, writing a review. I recognized, for example, “Maryland Health Club” and “The Sculpture Garden” as references to Shane’s stompings in my own town of Baltimore City. Others like “Rebranding” speak to Dustin’s job in marketing. And yet as one moves through each section, we experience moments of uncanny familiarity and the sense that, despite the warped scenery, we are moving along a familiar path.

Acclaimed Maryland writer, John Barth got us thinking of the adolescent experience as feeling as disorienting and disfiguring as walking through a funhouse in his short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse (1968). This classic example of experimental, postmodern fiction popped in mind as I read Treasures, and not only for the Maryland connection. It may be that in the latter, as in the former, we are witnessing the distortions, contortions, and paranoia of the young male experience growing up in the latter decades of the twentieth century. As if to support this idea, in “Planning a Dinner in the Village,” you, the host, “assemble the guest list to contain names / from every phase of your life: middle school, / construction, and up to the agency.” In fact, the collection’s structure itself evokes a process of becoming, with sections progressing from the innocence of “Poems of Love,” to “A Season In Hell,” followed by “Construction,” “The Agency,” “Reconstruction,” and finally, as if to capture the mundaneness of the golden years, “Cow Herding Pictures.”

In the opening poem, “Taking Names,” a title that invites associations all the way from kicking butt to grade school roll call, a man recalls golfing as a boy with his dad: “I predicted the weather and called out the name of every weed. / Latin names, gleaned from local agrology cyclicals / fished from the trash.” This is a boy on the more tender-hearted end of the masculine spectrum, a science-minded observer of lifeforms that most overlook or find to be nuisances. His Korean War veteran dad is not humorless, as noted earlier, nor without charm: “In the clubhouse dad relished calling the waitress honey,” the speaker recalls, describing how he was routinely “wheedled, / cajoled, coaxed” into ordering his father a cocktail. “But not this time– / dad pulled the waitress close and called her by her name. / And not her Latin name.” The full-circle punchline dropping just after the boy has a glimpse into his father’s adult life lets us feel the impact of that moment with a dash of sweet humor. We are also reminded of the boy’s intellectual preoccupation, and that there is a high level of craft at work here; in other words, this is no simple parlor game.

And yet, let us not disparage the main delight of the Exquisite Corpse exercise: the element of comedic surprise. Depending on the mood of the participants, an unfurled Exquisite Corpse poem might read as an amnesiac call-and-response, or else a series of non-sequiturs and puns. This is where the comedy improvisation mandate of “yes, and” comes in (whatever your scene partner gets you into, you go with it, add to it, however silly or surreal). “He was an important man to many–such as his parrot, Rusty,” is the first line of “The Skyscraper.” A setup. Followed by: “And to others, he was a portly man–not unlike his dog, Rusty.” This speaks to the playfulness of the poets, their graciousness toward each other’s jabs, and their willingness to let this kind of gold survive rounds of sober revision.

“Poems of Love” delivers on its promise, in which we experience the youthful admiration of and miscommunication between the sexes. Hold onto your Freudian hats. We feel moments of tender pity for our younger selves side-by-side with facepalm innuendo, like in the last lines of “Prima Facie”: “I was nineteen and poorly groomed / with an indistinct future and a shrinking carrot / with a woodsy aroma.” Jet planes appear more than once across the collection, including in Nichols’ illustration facing “The Beach,” in which the speaker observes a girl collecting clams: “it did not escape her / that there was an unusually heavy flow of jet planes overhead.” The juxtaposition of the martial presence of the planes with the afternoon calm of the beach scene–but both evoking oceanic imagery–could describe living on that border between the innocent joy of childhood and the loud, aggressive reminders–or the cresting wave–of impending adulthood; we can try to ignore it, but it’s inescapable. (Or, perhaps a clam is just a clam.) Closing out this section is “Mike and Miranda,” that couple that (don’t mind them) like to lie down together in a woodpile sometimes.

That said, don’t get any ideas that this collection is all fun and games. Section two, “A Season in Hell?” promises alarming realities and intrusions, beginning with the friend in “Grand Canyon,” who “was losing teeth and going blind.” In this unforgiving terrain, nature is on the attack: “The shadows covered my eyes / except for hot blades of light that passed through my temples.” The jets find us again in “The Sculpture Garden,” interrupting a sense of freedom with an even more ominous appearance: “They weren’t there just to say hello either.” The father-son dynamic is strong in this section as well, especially in the so-titled “Father,” when a son is terrorized by an absent or perhaps deceased father. The paternal presence even goes so far as to use the speaker as a mouthpiece in “Lying”: “I was preparing us to become men. / There is my father speaking again–” The lines–as well as the end rhymes–suggest that the ways in which we become our parents are subtle but profound. Why do we bother going to such great lengths to differentiate ourselves, just to circle back once the rage of youth subsides? How do we become men (or women) without turning into our parents?

Despite the adroit, high-wire act Junkert and Moritz manage when shaping the flow of their ideas, they place obstacles in the other’s path, pranking and taunting as they ping-pong images and verbs back at one another, like in “The Hop”: “She pointed out his misgivings. / He pointed out her foot.” Other moments seem to reference inside jokes that are nonetheless amusing and evocative: “To live all the time is to live / in your avocado sweater!” I imagine the audience’s laughter (or my own, forceful spondee). Then it strikes me that this too is representative of the individual consciousness: self-sabotage. So although these poems carry us off to uncanny destinations, we find ourselves within them. We may be standing on a minefield, this collection suggests, but it feels no less like home.