The wonderings and wanderings of the maturing poet, recollected in elegy, self-deprecating humor, and moments of personal clarity seem to be a perennial favorite among Midwestern voices, and Chris Green’s first book clearly defines him as a champion of this mode. From his choice of puns and candid scenes to the obvious displays of technical skill and learning, Green exemplifies the ironies and neuroses that plague the writer who sees himself as Dante-prophet in the isolation of Midwest winters and towns. And his limits are as high as the skies over a Walgreens.
Glancing at the table of contents, many nature and cultural references grab the eye—so many “animal poems” in fact, Green almost seems to be daring the reader to dismiss them. Many of the titles also announce the casual ironic humor that is to follow with poem titles such as, “A Woman at Starbucks Reads the Cliff Notes to Moby-Dick,” “What I Can Tell Ted Kooser and No One Else,” and “The Physics of Ex-Girlfriends”. With titles such as these, one can’t help but dive in.
The leading entry, “Nursing Home Love Poem,” characterizes the mix of humor and sadness that dominates the entire book, justifying and accelerating the reader’s anticipation. The first lines read:
I’ve never told anyone this.
I lean in to give her a peck,
but before I can say, Grandma, it’s me, Chris,
she slips me her tongue,
The first section, composed essentially of elegies, laments Green’s distance from grief through scenes that carefully separate the author from the events, taking slow steps towards release with simple lines such as, “Old friend, I loved you, and I’m sorry,” towards a breakthrough in “The Night my Grandmother Dies, I Watch a Documentary About Sharks”:
When the shark finally recedes,
waves darken, and after
a silence, Shark Gordon’s voice,
“This is why I wake up every morning.”
And then it’s herself and myself
and the whole cradling sea.
The second section gets a bit farther away from death, opening up to humor, and taking up the loss of connection in place of the loss of life. Consider “Limbo,” Green’s sensual, reference-laden commentary on the sterility of his friend’s poetry and marriage:
In the map of Dante’s hell, he neglects to note
the circle for listening to a lecture on Dante’s hell.
The speaker keeps speaking,
It was the first time he ever smiled without being drunk or
borrowing money, and I wait for the poem where his Beatrice
conceives on a lonely freeway of endless wordplay.
Perhaps the most successful of the bunch, “Ars Poetica,” is a meditation on transcendence that owes much to Keats and Eliot. It directs the action with straight-forward observation, weaving deftly between the universal and immediate as the poet observes his dog:
he understood more
by not understanding. I want to
die without knowing I’m dying,
to love the ground and dig
for sweet bones, to lie in doorways
at night, and in the morning
take in the sunlight.
The last section of Green’s book takes to humor more fully, tackling scenes of love and sex with a mixture of the genuinely positive and a sense of loss over our self-imposed distance and shortcomings. In it, Green draws us into his immediate senses and textures: the field of his hair, his nervous anticipations, the charge he feels just inches from another’s face. The last line from “First Sex” perhaps sums him up here best, “So difficult even to begin, and then it’s over.”
Overall, The Sky Over Walgreens is very accessible to the non-poet reader while maintaining the interest of those who care to read more closely. The host of literary and cultural references will certainly make the reader feel rather pleased with herself for discerning them. While there’s still the hint of showing off that comes from such efforts because they are embedded in a consciously casual tone, they are not in the least bit annoying; they instead work as sign posts for his intentions and influences.
The book could easily have been a bit shorter (it still only comes in at 72 pages) given that there are some flat moments that read more like private exercises, left in by over-indulgent editing, but with the strength of Green’s wonderful observations and humor, it is perhaps better to view them as variations from the peaks in Green’s quiet, private landscapes driving by a Walgreens.