The metamorphosis that anchors Lynn Emanuel's new poetry collection is something more than it seems. The poet becomes a dog: It's Kafka's metamorphosis, in part, and partly by way of Samuel Beckett and "Krazy Kat" cartoonist George Herriman. But Emanuel tunes the darkly comic existential angst to the present moment in a way that makes her Noose and Hook (University of Pittsburgh Press, $14.95) as scarily sobering as it is wickedly funny.
The transformation is a literary one -- not just because it takes place on the page, but because it reflects something new in the book's narrative intelligence. "The living teetered at the edge of a cliff," Emanuel writes in part one of this three-part, 60-page collection. The poet responds by writing about it ("I dipped my pen into that inky place" while "I sat behind the windshield of my face"), but shortly concludes: "Personal experiences are chains and balls / fatally drawn to the magnetic personality ... I hear the call to rise out of the trance of myself / into the surcease of the dying world ... I will never again write from personal experience."
This change occurs amidst fleeting but omnipresent war imagery, "doctors / called from their face-lifts to perform amputations." Then comes part two, "The Mongrelogues," a two-act play for characters including Dogg ("A Dog in Dogg's Clothing), Mistrust ("Dogg's Mistress") and The P'lease ("Police and Dog Catchers"). It's explicitly set in the "21st centuree," and also "in mid evil an medicated times," and rendered in a version of Herriman's punning street dialect:
I thot this iz the life --
a planet uf ruin an disorder
an the doggs uf the world
runnin the world.
In a dystopian society, the metamorphosis into canine is scarcely all bad: "[M]y nose became an organ of thoughtfulness, my ears were shells in which the seas of the voices of the world thrashed ..." There's a loss of agency but a learning to like it; the narrator is wised up, in a way -- fitted for chaos.
Emanuel depicts an angst that can be grasped only by setting it on a barren stage, as Beckett-style vaudeville.
One of part three's epigraphs, in fact, summons Waiting for Godot. Estragon: "I can't go on like this." Vladimir: "That's what you think."
But here, returned to the more familiar world of apparent personal experience that's limned in "Dream in Which I Meet Myself," the poet seems to recant: "I am this dream's dog. I want out."
Part three's poems mostly explore literary identity, and our struggles through art to grasp the world: "America, you don't need poetry. / Could we not go back to the way things were ... Before you and I were forced to speak?"
Nonetheless, inexorably, the poet is drawn back to the "surcease of the dying world." It's now a "Final Journey ... World shut and over, / Mingy and dim." With a grim acceptance, the book ends, "Hello."
Lynn Emanuel reads with Bob Hicok 7 p.m. Thu., April 15. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Schenley Plaza, Oakland. Free. 412-383-2493