So begins “The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House” by the poet Nick Lantz. It may seem a little kooky or downright nonsensical, and he quickly gets darker:
“The reed warbler goes on feeding/the cuckoo long after/its own chicks have starved to death.”
And then it gets weird again: “Some days I almost believe I could live the life of a bowl of plastic fruit.”
This book is not for those unwilling to dive into absurdity; this book is not for the faint of heart.
I tend to view life as a continuum of absurd moments: where every day ultimately devolves and seems, in retrospect, to only echo something with purpose. Examples include items in my cart at Walmart (a plunger, a case of beer, a desk easel, a low-calorie pizza, risers), conversations with my father (me: I walked the dog today. Dad: Have you thought about moving to Cuba?), things my students raise their hands to ask in ACT class (Excuse? Why do I have to learn Calculus?). I love these things, perhaps because of their purposelessness, because every day most of us get up and do the same thing all over again even when none of it makes any sense.
Why do you have to learn Calculus, kid?
This is beauty of Lantz’s book. How often do we think about “the gummy dust of a lotto scratch card”? In “U.S. Route 50, Nevada, The Loneliest Road in America,” the narrator says he or she could be that scratch card refuse. Even when furiously rubbing that card with a dime, do you even consider the dust? In this poem, we see ghost-towns and self-loathing, side by side with Mormon crickets who can teach a valuable lesson about loneliness. This is what I want in poetry: the mundane details of life made weird and wild.
The book is divided into three sections: Where You are, Where You’ve Been, Where You’re Going; What Land of Milk and Honey; and Back to Earth Unharmed. The poems in each section fall into perfect harmony, though it may not seem so until after reading the book. Of these, the second section is perhaps the most affecting. Through the same strange, fun house version of animals and events of daily life, Lantz delves into tragedies and the tragic state of our world. “Portmanterrorism” highlights “affluenza” years before that horrid case was made in Texas. Lantz seems to suggest the apocalypse is real, and we are living in it.
Weird and wild is the driving force of “The Cryptozoologist Chaperones His Daughter’s Prom.” A high school prom is little more than a gathering of beasts at a water hole, and we see it through the filter of one obsessed with finding the “Jersey Devil, Pope Lick Monster, [and] Sarasota Skunk Ape.” He guards the punch bowl, having been warned by the principal “that anything is possible.” How fitting for the man who embarrasses his daughter with the search for the Chupacabra.
In the final section, the poem “Collective” struck a chord with me, a sort of meditation on human groupings, on pack mentality: “Any piano bar player will tell you not to start/the first song with an empty/tip jar. Any thug/knows it’s safest to throw the second stone.” Some of the ways we humans divide ourselves are antiquated and nonsensical, yet we stick to them as law (or because of the law). Then Lantz reminds us: “But don’t forget that when the map is folded,/our country touches theirs, face/to face.”
Lantz is dark, but I find its strangeness familiar. If you aren’t willing to dig through tough language and view this world critically, the book is probably not for you. But if you find this earth bizarre, if you can’t quite make sense of it, try Lantz out. He will not disappoint.