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book image big back yard
Poems by Michael Teig
BOA Editions, Ltd
$13.95, 79 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8.5 out of 10 stars

View three poems from big back yard here


In his introduction to Michael Teig's book, big back yard, winner of the BOA Editions, Ltd., A Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize for 2003, Steven Dobyns writes:
Within the mass of contemporary poetry, there are many poets who use one unexpected turn after another and the surprise is meant to be its own payoff. The surprise exists for its own sake and the poems proceed through a series of arresting non-sequiturs ... [W]hen I first read Teig's poems I felt some anxiety about the payoff ... [but] again and again the poems wound through surprising terrain to end at places that seemed exactly right.
This is an important point because surprise and juxtaposition are key elements in Teig's work. In the poem "Minding the Store" (see gallery), for example, the speaker is xeroxing his teeth; the teeth become enlarged, iconic, the buildings his father stands in front of while "fumbling for his car keys". The strangeness of this metaphormosis is the strangeness of discovering that you are the same age as the parent in your memory, that you "share the same habits". But we also recognize in this action a bit of the sad prankster, the man at the company party who has a few too many drinks and photocopies his ear, his arm, his mouth, and then passes them out to coworkers as objects of art. It's meant to be funny, but funny in a way that reveals human nature.

Dobyns also suggests that surrealism for its own sake — that is, a random association of images whose sole purpose is surprise — is absurd. At some point, the newness of surrealism wears off and the style itself becomes a kind of cliché. There are surreal elements at work in Teig's poems, to be sure, but the images are like the familiar symbols in dreams, and work through cumulative association.

For example, "Report to the Bishop," the first of two such reports in the book, opens with:
Sometimes the crossing Guard from Warsaw
forgets to shave and scares the children.

The bowling alley's balding proprietor
talks with great gentleness to his yellow finch.

He makes his mouth very small
and cups the bird like a flower with a fuse.
These three stanzas provide an example about what Teig does so successfully: he gives us back that sense of wonderment we had as children. The man is scary because of a small growth of beard. Who hasn't had inexplicable, if irrational feelings such as this? This feeling of scariness is then contrasted with the gentleness of the bowling alley proprietor. The third couplet builds on this, but reverses the order. He cups the bird (gentleness) like a flower with a fuse (danger). The absurdity of this image works because of the setup and also because of its series of small ironies. The crossing guard is scary, but is a figure for safety. The bald proprietor handles the bird like a bomb, not because it is dangerous but because it is beautiful.

Everything in the world of these poems is recognizable — birds, chairs, flowers, clouds, trains, parents — and yet it is the way Teig moves from place to place, line to line, that gives us a sense of the fierce originality of his voice. It almost seems too easy, too casual, as though anyone could do it, and yet these rewarding poems hold up under scrutiny. He is such an intriguing stylist that we almost forget that no matter how strange and wonderful his poems are, they are still a species of lyric poetry.

Teig loves inventive titles: "I Bring You the Drawing of Lunch I Found in the Lunch Room", "Best Regular Window. Two Dollar chair." and "How Much String is in the World. Who Has It." Being an editor of a major literary journal, I suspect that these are as much a survival move as they are expressions of joy. Which poems get read first when you are thumbing through a journal? The ones that look the most interesting.

This is a wonderful book, full of surprise, invention, humor and wisdom. I highly recommend it.

View three poems from big back yard here

Poet's Biography:
  Michael Teig was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. He attended Oberlin College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His poems have appeared in many literary journals including FIELD, The Black Warrior Review, The Ohio Review, and The Gettysburg Review. He lives in Massachusetts, where he is a Founding Editor of JUBILAT.

© 1999 - 2004, by the poets featured herein.