The Royal Nonesuch by Steven Schroeder
(Spark Wheel Press, 2013)
reviewed by William Neumire
If a pun, a limerick, and a sonnet got together to drink and impugn America for its dehumanizing free market economy and idiosyncratic stupidities, and things got a little sloppy, and they had a one-night stand, this would be their child. Steven Schroeder’s second book of poetry, The Royal Nonesuch, is silly-thick with sound like a braid of tongue twisters and mad gabs.
A nonesuch is a person or thing without an equal, but in Schroeder’s collection, it alludes to the scam run by the duke and the king in Huckleberry Finn in which the audience, expecting a drama, gets instead…nothing. Bitter over the philistine sensibilities of the townsfolk, the con artists scam two different audiences like this, and before the third can pummel them with rotten food, the pair make a run for it. How does this translate into Schroeder’s poems? In “Better Consider My National Resources,” the reader gets a microcosm of the whole collection’s bent attitude, as the speaker riffs on “The National Anthem,” “This Land is My Land,” and other chants of Americana: “Oh say can you see my cheese fries…I only regret that I have but one life to give for my third job at / 7-Eleven.” It’s a joke bitter with debt, the failed promise of the American dream, and most of all, a joke bitter about loneliness amidst plenty.
The book moves forward in four thirteen-poem sections, each poem a little 13-line sonnet (a scam in itself) with sporadic stanza breaks; it is reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Lichtenberg Figures in form. The poems are accusations documenting the collapsing expectations of this myopic, conned speaker:
In that last dusty library book,
the vocation least likely to become obsolete
There’s an underlying and absurd desire manufactured by an even more absurd, amoral free market economics at work in poems such as “Imbecile, Donkey, Flax-Head, Dope, Glump, Ninny and Fool,” whose speaker begs, “please oh please / may they name this disease after me.” In half-rhymes, iambs, and homophones, the book regularly details money’s Marxist role in devaluing people and engendering loneliness:
Cash makes you fun. A check can stop
without your help and when it wants
Credit cards only hurt themselves…
your country pay until you’re spent.
Schroeder also plays this game of homophones throughout the collection, as in “Where the Bank Fails”: “Lenders weigh debtors down with pounds / Of Krugerrands and launder their hands / Tender in the green-eyed current, see?” Note the sly slipping of currency into current, see and legal tender into “tender in the green-eyed current.” It’s smart and funny and acrimonious all in one grand blur.
With titles clipped from pop culture (such as “I do not think it means what you think it means,” lifted from The Princess Bride, itself a grand mock), this is an indictment of whatever vestige of “the American dream” remains, as the reader can see in a jaded take on Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “America, your song was too big to fail / Your song cost more than itself.” The poems slip like this from funny into somber, like a tough guy deflecting pain with humor, and then finally cracking.
Chained to each other and cleverly phrased in this language as tongue-in-cheek game, Schroeder’s poems constantly set up and break from expectations: “After a break // on whatever levels of the word, we can make up / reasons to repeat these moves we make, Love.” Here, in “Each One Goes Alone,” we get that comforting, euphemistic cliché, “make love,” broken by that direct address comma in such a way that both meanings come through, though—as is usual in this book—the conventional meaning is tainted and fraught with contempt, or at least strong critique. But cynicism gives way to internal collapse soon enough in most of these poems, as in “Code Name Is The Only One,” where Schroeder writes “your password is passive-aggressive… // Why can’t you guess this picture I encrypted / in invisible ink? It’s obvious it’s loneliness.” And loneliness here gets the last echoic silence after the laugh.
On Poetry’s podcast a while back, Don Share declared, “language makes lying possible.” These poems, as much as they accuse and complain, are odes to that language of lies, and to the greatest lie: that all of this belittling madness is not ephemeral,
When we closed your eyes for good, you looked
like you were checking the lids for pinpricks.
When we closed ours, we could deny everything.
It’s always there, that hollow sense at the end of the joke, that hangover after the party:
Add in bed after any of my statements (in bed).
We’re Pete and Repeat sitting in a boat.
If I complement you, will you compliment me?
When I’m with you, don’t whisper implications.
When I’m incognito, tell everyone I’m cute.
When I’m gone, say I was beautiful.
A reveler in oxymorons and ironies, Schroeder rolls through The Royal Nonesuch with his cheeky, stinging mojo on full-tilt: “This bunker-buster bomb is user friendly, idiot proof and child safe for the entire family to enjoy, eight to 88 / This gun wants to tuck your kids into bed / This one would fuck anybody.” He’s a gamer and a scam artist to the very end, where he offers his “Transgressions” index, a sort of categorizing of the sins his poems illustrate, everything from “bad advice” to “substance abuse.” And though this collection can feel, at intervals, like it strikes the same note too many times, it’s fast-paced, double entendre, witty jabs and word games make it too much fun to put down. It’s a good laugh (itself difficult to pull off so intelligently in contemporary poetry) that also gradually builds a poignant sense of pathos for its conned and broken speaker.