RUNAWAY GOAT CART
by Thomas Devaney
Hanging Loose Press, 80 pages
reviewed by Anna Strong
Early in Runaway Goat Cart, the latest from Thomas Devaney, readers get a found poem of language that has come from a diary found in a darkroom at Moore Women’s College of Art, dated 1972. The writer of the diary is unidentified, though she records the speech of a few of her friends. One of these, Susan, from the haze of cigarette smoke and darkroom chemicals, offers two startlingly clear statements about photography and art that also serve as a guide to reading Devaney’s text. The first, dated November 9:
Susan says it’s forbidden for our pictures to echo
the objects they depict; nothing looks like that,
she said, but it’s allowed, it’s allowed
for the world to look the way it does.
Fine words those.
The second, dated less than a month later, reads:
Prints are not reproductions. Susan said this is a mistaken idea.
What you’re looking at is a photograph: how something looks there.
Taken together, Susan’s sage advice about how to look at a photograph (or take a photograph) tells readers much about how to read Devaney’s poems. So many of the best poems in Runaway Goat Cart take us deep into memory, and on the surface, those memories seem to be rendered exactly: all the names of the neighborhood children recalled, the feel of a baseball bat in the palms, the house fire burned into the mind as though it is happening in front of Devaney as he is committing it to paper.
But memory is much trickier and more mutable than these crystal-clear images suggest. In “Morning in Runnemede,” Devaney writes,
Grandmother said, “Watch out.”
Are quotes necessary?
Not really, and she never could have said
all I have her saying; though she did
have one refrain I loved — “Don’t get old.”
That was it, and out of the house now.
What is so striking about the above passage (and Runaway Goat Cart contains many more of these moments) is Devaney’s exposure of the process of writing about something as unfixed as what he can recall about mornings in Runnemede. Are the quotes really necessary to attribute those words to her? Did she really say them? What other words has he put in her mouth for poetic effect? Does that matter? Susan would argue that it does not matter, because the reproduction of a memory is not the memory itself, and therefore the reproduction is subject to different rules—rules that allow Devaney to give Grandmother quotes, or no quotes, or italics, or a phrase out of context.
Leaving the readers the process of recording and reproducing memories allows us to see where he second-guesses himself, where he referees between the content of the poem and the form he wants it to take. It is a process that can be frustrating, counter-intuitive (this resistance to cutting out process and leaving only product), but it is, ultimately, a refreshingly and remarkably honest way to write a poem.
Devaney pulls the whole project together with his language, language that shows readers that remembering something means collapsing the space between then and now. With repetition, as in “Godspeed”:
but at its crackling heart
lightening is an expression of God’s speed.
Godspeed is the only prayer I know that makes sense.
So I offer it now — now go. Godspeed, I pray
And in the quarter-turns we get with lines like, “String of strip malls, strip clubs,” “No succor for the soccer suckers,” (“Morning in Runnemede”), and “Let the days funnel / —in every way. / In every that’s open, even / to fail away” (“Poem for Patty Chang and David Kelley”). Devaney shows that poetry is among the only spaces where he can offer readers the reproduction, the process of reproducing, and a nod to what has been lost or misremembered along the way.
What matters, ultimately, is that we have the poem we are reading as we are reading it. Devaney has successfully shown that he can be his younger and older and current self all in the space of a single line like “succor for soccer suckers” and he does not have to decide one way or another. His world does not have to look like ours, or even like his—it just has to build a space where the poem can do its work. In other, better words, from the extraordinary “Burning the Bear Suit”: “There is only one thing to do, / one thing—the thing we are doing.”
Thomas Devaney’s poem “Photobooth” appears in Issue No. 7 of Cleaver.
Anna Strong’s work has previously appeared in the Penn Review, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Peregrine, and Poems for the Writing. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds a master’s degree from Boston College. Anna helps teach Penn’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course through Coursera. Read her poetry in Cleaver: “From Apostrophes” (Issue No. 2) and “Dear Couch” (Preview Issue.)