Shuffle and Breakdown
Poems by Cody Walker
Waywiser Press, 2008
First, let’s just say this: Hallelujah for Waywiser Press! With a list of poets like Anthony Hecht, Greg Williamson, and Mark Strand, this press is obviously no stranger to the game. A poet who might be a stranger to the casual connoisseur, however, is Cody Walker, a recent addition to the Waywiser cast. His debut collection Shuffle and Breakdown should change all that.
I don’t often laugh when sitting around at the DMV. Not many do. That said, as I read through the poems in Cody Walker’s new collection I must have looked like a madman among the just plain mad, giggling like a kid with a secret. My three hour wait there was a breeze, and Walker’s poems made it that way. The collection moves like a great indie film. You like it, at first, because it’s quirky like Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson. Then you realize it might also be quirky and wise, like the Coen Brothers and Todd Solondz, and there are few greater joys than this.
Part of the strangeness of the collection is that Walker’s hilarity never allows itself to become totally unmoored from its environment. In other words, although we have poems that pluck comedy from old black and white footage (see Walker’s one line poem “Abbot and Costello: The Alzheimer’s Years”), we are also constantly reminded of the place these poems were written from; George W. Bush’s America.
As soon as you finish your spit-take from a poem like “Blind Date” (I’m sorry but / I can’t see you anymore) or the hilarious “My Mother and Steven Seagal Share the Same Birthday,” you have to reconcile yourself to another large chunk of the collection; a meditation about the disingenuous US invasion of Iraq.
The second of the five sections of Shuffle and Breakdown is undoubtedly the breakdown. Remarkable in their ability to transport me right back to the feeling of moral disquiet I had in those years, the poems in this section take direct aim at the major players of the US/Iraq invasion. While Section I gave us humorous glimpses of what was to come with poems like “The Cheney Correspondence” (letters to Dick signed Warm regards to you and your family / Cody Walker) Section II reminds us that this invasion was not a joke. The poem “Escalation, 2007” (which X.J. Kennedy lauds on the back cover) is the pompous glut of Bush’s war distilled. The poem “Earlier Today, Archival Edition” about Donald Rumsfeld, makes you wonder how any of us survived.
All of this is to neglect mention of the final section of this remarkable book; a series of letters from the fictitious grandson of Walt Whitman (Caleb) to the Bard himself. Spanning from 1889 to 1892, from Georgia to Camden, Walker leaves no doubt that he knows what he is doing. It is only fitting that the collection end with Whitman, as well, as Walker’s outstretched arms, in regard to form and subject, recall him.
Cody Walker is here to stay. His book Shuffle and Breakdown tells of both the good and the bad in our world, just as our mouths are made to frown and to smile.