Writing free verse is playing tennis with the net down, Robert Frost famously said, and yet in the decades since his dismissal of the form many poets have ventured to win that game. Frost also once wrote to a friend that irony is a kind of guardedness, that at bottom the world isn’t a joke and humor is the most engaging cowardice — dour, almost dictatorial pronouncements.
Jeff Tigchelaar’s new free-verse collection, Certain Streets at an Uncertain Hour, proves once again what poets have protested for years in response to Robert Frost: Poetry can be funny and serious, dramatic and absurd. You can break the rules. Life isn’t a dichotomy. It’s never one thing or another. You can untangle beautiful truths about humanity’s fleeting existence and still enjoy yourself in the process.
Certain Streets is at its heart a love letter to Kansas, and as such was published by Woodley Press at Washburn University in Topeka. Two illustrations by Charlotte Pemberton bookend the text — two different splattered-ink outlines of the Free State — and many of the poems retrace Tigchelaar’s movements through Lawrence and Kansas City. Readers will find very public venues, here, like Arrowhead Stadium, The Raven Bookstore, and the Spencer Museum of Art, but also more obscure ones, like “a truck stop in central Kansas staring at a T-shirt display while my three-year-old marvels at a claw game I’m totally not letting him play.”
Tigchelaar’s poems sometimes deal with subjects like death, but often in an indirect, humorous way. For example, “Fly Frontier” opens with two lines about the dubious wisdom of human flight: “I’m in a manmade capsule hurtling through the sky/so if I die I probably deserve it.” As the plane veers during takeoff, Tigchelaar imagines his final destination:
"If this were a dream, I’d step out
and plunge into the darkness of a Monday
and fall until everything was light."
On the opposite page from “Fly Frontier,” Tigchelaar meets a man in the woods. This poem’s called “The Thing About Dying.” He’s on an early morning walk, and imagines the man speaks to him, saying, “I bet/you didn’t think you’d die today.” Of course, the man said no such thing, and instead just kept walking along with his smiley golden retriever, “who should have been on a leash, but oh well.” Another sort-of death hound appears in “It,” when a man who “resembled Flanders, of Simpsons fame,” tells his dog, Lucy, to
“It did/kind of kill me,” the narrator writes of being reduced to a pronoun for an “object, animal, or baby.” That is, he admits, “In a sense.”
There are more near dog attacks, and more dogs of all kinds. George Brett’s labradoodle makes an appearance. But canines are not the only creatures who populate Tigchelaar’s work. His poems are full of animals: an opossum in an account of a marsupial murder (“maybe it was/only playing”); an antlered rabbit, or jackalope, in “It’s Totally a Thing” (“Child 2: I think it might be a cross between real and mythical”); and the Least Weasel, or Mustela nivalis:
"I’m right there with you, little guy.
Sometimes I feel like
you: 'The smallest
carnivore in the world.'"
Pages turn quickly in “Certain Streets at an Uncertain Hour,” all 87 of them zooming by with a light touch. At the end of the book, though, you also feel you’ve witnessed a talented poet using language to grapple with human experience. At bottom the world isn’t a joke, as Frost insisted, although the world as Tigchelaar presents it is funny. It’s also serious, fleeting, earnest, and worthwhile — equal to the time it takes to explore and observe. Something about Tigchelaar’s mindful prose makes you want to do what he does, go out into the world, enjoy it, contemplate it, and try to explain it in striking images.
Perhaps the author — himself an artist, a journalist, and a stay-at-home dad who has since relocated to the mountains of West Virginia — sums up the complexity of his longtime home best in “Kansas Interlude”:
"Kansas was heaven
and Kansas was hell
and Kansas was the time
I couldn’t tell."