Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rabbit Punch! by Greg Santos

Greg Santos 
Rabbit Punch! 

DC Books 

By the numbers 

ISBN 978-1-927599-22-8 
Publication: 2014 
Total pages: 76 
Number of poems: 61

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Greg Santos, a Canadian poet and graphic designer who teaches creative writing to at-risk youth, is also the poetry editor for carte blanche. He lives in Montreal with his wife and two children. Greg and I know each other via social media, both of us having been active participants in a couple of projects sponsored by The Found Poetry Review (FPR). When Greg's second book of poetry, Rabbit Punch!, was released, he asked me to review it. The book's cover and title, as well as what I knew of his poetry, led me to suspect that the book would be an imaginative foray into pop culture, that it would be filled with humorous, witty
at times dark or surrealpoems. I accepted his invitation. As it turns out, the book is as I anticipated; it does not disappoint. You can read all about it in the review below.

Greg was also kind enough to do an interview. You can find out more about his thoughts on poetry and his books here.

—Nancy Chen Long


[This review was conducted via email in January 2015 and was first published on Poetry Matters.]

Greg Santos' second book Rabbit Punch! is filled with lithe poems, quick on their feet, poems that are witty, whimsical, serious, sarcastic, celebratory, bittersweet. Some are entertaining, while others are deceptively sopoems layered with meaning that reward upon repeated readings. Santos has dedicated the book to the memory of his mentor Paul Violi and in some of the poems, it's evident that such mentors and favorite poets have exerted a heavy influence over Santos' work. 

Rabbit Punch! is divided into three sections. Each of the sections has a variety of different types of poems, from traditional to experimental. The majority of the poems are short, i.e., less than a page long. While the poems cover an array of subjects, the majority of them include some treatment or reference to Western popular culture. However, the first section, taken as a whole, has fewer references to pop culture than the other two sections. The poems here are a bit more personal and lyrical. One of my favorites is "Lullaby":


A little way ahead
winter is come

Do you remember
it ever being so cold?

Ash trees burn
above white paths

The sky goes on
with cool indifference

Wheels of the train
fall silent

We have arrived
at the junction

All creatures
don their coats

A little way ahead
winter is come

In addition, the first section has an international bent as well, with a good dose of things French, which can be seen based on the titles alone, e.g., “La Mue” and “It’s Snowing in Paris.” And 
Santos also gives a nod in this first section to fairy tale and myth. For example, in the poem “Cronus,” an intriguing poem that's only three lines long, Santos approaches the Cronus myth—the god of time that devours all—through the metaphor of a farmer
The farmer has a basket full of eggs.
He wonders if he should bring them back to their coop.
But they are his children and he is hungry.
And in “Hansel and Gretel,” Santos depicts a story different from the Grimm Brothers' version. Instead of victims, in Santos' world, Hansel and Gretel are instigators, defying their parents because they want to find the witchthey’re actively seeking “peppermint, floss, and doom.” The line “We were ready to die for love” and last line of the poem “At long last, love in all its glory” suggest that Hansel and Gretel believed the witch to be Love. There are a number of ways in which to read that sentiment. One of the more obvious ones is that Hansel and Gretel were evil like the witch. Another is that they were so unloved they would love anything that beckoned, so desperate that they grasped at evil, thinking that's what love looks like. While both readings are surprising and fresh, the second is punch in gut that left this reader thinking about it for days. 

The second section of Rabbit Punch! is prefaced with the first three lines of Dean Young's "Sean Penn Anti-Ode." It's an appropriate presage for this section filled with poems about Western public figures, cultural icons, and folklore: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, model/socialite Paris Hilton,  caped crusader Batman, the actor Charlie Sheen, American politician John McCain, the Tooth Fairy, aliens, and more, all find a home in this section. 

A number of these poems in the second section are dramatic monologues written in the persona of a famous figure. In "I May Be Macho but I'm no Genius" (another one of Santos' poems that appears to be humorous, but is not), professional wrestler Randy Savage tells us "I'm more Burger King than Macho King. ... I wouldn't wish Macho Madness on anyone, brother." The last line "I miss Elizabeth," transforms the poem from one of sarcasm or mockery to one of sadness. Elizabeth had been Savage's romantic interest, as well as his wrestling manager. When she left Savage for another wrestler (Hulk Hogan), it unsettled the world of professional wrestling. Elizabeth was stalked and even injured. She died of a drug overdose in 2003. If the last line of the poem refers to when she left Savage, then the poem is a wistful one about heartbreak. However, if it refers to when she died, then the poem is one of mourning, a poem of grief and regret, especially in light of the poem's epigraph: "Reincarnation doesn't have to be. You can concentrate and you can mental telepathy. Yeah!" The epigraph is a quote by Savage from a 1987 promotional. The quote might elicit ridicule from the reader when first read, but by the end of the poem, all one feels is pity.

It's not all famous figures in the second section. The poet-persona also makes an appearance, with the poet as a first person narrator. Even so, some pop-culture aspect is still prominently featured. For example, in "A Wild Night at Hooters," the narrator recounts a fictional evening at the American restaurant Hooters, an evening spent with famous dead poets and writers (e.g., "We'd get smashed drinking Coors, spot Whitman coming onto Frost, / we'd have to keep Yeats away from the dartboards.") And in the endearing poem "The Great Hoarder," which is the last poem of this section, Santos gifts us with a narrator who hoards in the spirit of Hoarders, that American television show about people who compulsively keep things forever. However, instead of hoarding material objects, the narrator hoards thoughts and questions while his family sleeps.

In the third and final section of the book, we find a collection of surreal and experimental poems. The opening poem "Imaginationland" (which is also the title of a series of episodes of the animated TV show South Park) takes us on a quick jaunt through the "the Tim Burton-ish forest" in the narrator's head, where "squirrels dance merrily with foxes" and "My family waits for me in a gingerbread house." In addition, this third section houses poems about a New York that is "left of the center of the universe" and advice poems about how to handle ghost hares ("Don't play dead. And whatever you do, don't act like a carrot. / Wearing orange around ghost hares is suicidal.") There are poems about poems, even a poem that wants "you to trust it," but not immediately. No, it "wants you to hold hands first for a while before getting serious." 

This final section is also a celebration of some of the poets who have influenced Santos: The poem "We're all Just Passing Strange" is dedicated to Santos' mentor Paul Violi and the line from that poem"Suffering from the morning of the poem" could be a reference to James Schuyler's epic poem "The Morning of the Poem." A number of poems are patterned after poets that Santos admires, notably "Meanwhile, What I'm Going To Do" and "We the Wild Bunch" (the link is to a video of Santos reading his poem) are written after John Ashberry and "Types of Silence" and "The Disease is Its Remedy" are written after Mark Strand. Indeed, in the the spirit of celebration, Santos openly confesses here his love of the art: "I have a unique condition. / I am prescribed to eat poetry for the rest of my days. / Do not cry for me; it is a happy ailment" ("The Disease is Its Remedy.")

In the last poem of the book, "A Vanishing Act," a magician pulls "rabbits out of a top hat," wields the tools of illusion "fog and mirrors," intones special words "to distract" the audience. Magician as conjurer; poet as conjurer. It reminded me of what Jane Hirshfield wrote in "Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox" (The Writers Chronicle, Feb 2015)that in a good poem, sometimes one finds oneself "inside both the realm of the most common human truths and the realms of sequin and smoke, of scarf-trick and card-trick and mirrors that at once reveal and hide." One will find such poems in Rabbit Punch! From poem to poem, one can sense Santos' imagination hard at work to extend, as he says in his interview, "poetry's potential to both entertain and enlighten." Santos shared that he was interested "in exploring the idea that everything and anything is fair game to be poetic fodder." And in that, he has found success.


Oblivion Avenue
- by Greg Santos

When you make the decision to leave
and your loved ones wave their handkerchiefs from the docks
like a million mad flappings of Daffy Duck's beak,
you can't help wondering if you've made the right choice.

We leave the shores and drift so all that is left of our past
is an infinitesimal speck on an ancient iceberg,
complaining about its arthritis and bad hips,
melting toward oblivion.

Where? Oblivion Avenue.
You make a left turn at Albuquerque
Bugs Bunny always made a wrong toin at Albukoikee
but he somehow turned out fine. A wrong turn didn't stop him.

No. Even with Elmer Fudd at the end of the tunnel,
what didn't shoot Bugs made him stronger. He had the right idea.
Burrowing frantically through the dirt
toward a golden carrot that probably never has or ever will exist.

We all have an Elmer Fudd waiting for us at our final destination,
shotgun in hand, hiding among the welcoming throngs on the boardwalk.
Remember, fold your rabbit ears under your bowler hat.
He'll never suspect a thing.

"Lullaby," "Cronus," and “Oblivion Avenue,” © Greg Santos Rabbit Punch! (DC Books, 2014)

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