Balloon Pop Outlaw Black

By Patricia Lockwood


Octopus Books
October 2012

Reviewed by Carmen GimeĢnez Smith


In an interview with Chris Randle, Lockwood described conceiving of her first poetry collection while watching the Presidential Inauguration. "I'm looking at Barack Obama," Lockwood said, "and I'm perceiving that I'm seeing a man being flattened into a symbol at this very moment." In Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, Patricia Lockwood uses the template of animation to consider how we construct our lives on and through screens, interfaces, and surfaces. Contemporary literature and art (image fiction, Pop Art, lowbrow, etc.) have already layered cartoon characters with irony and capitalism. Lockwood rehabilitates one such character, Popeye, as a contemporary folk hero who emerges—vulnerable and corporeal—from the sluice of postmodernism. Many of the poems in this collection refer to or study what we have all become in this flattening process, not what's beneath the surface, but how that surface is often all the depth we have.

Three long poems inhabited by cartoon characters are the centerpiece of this collection. Popeye is announced as the protagonist of "When We Move Away from Here, You'll See a Clean Square of Paper His Picture Hung," and the other long poems make reference to a boy and a mother, who could possibly be read as Popeye's backstory. Lockwood performs an ingenious and bloodless embodiment of animation, Popeye and the empire of hammerspace: the interstitial world from which cartoon characters pull giant hammers and anvils, the space "where a wrecking ball swings out of nowhere" to describe the metaphysics of how we straddle IRL and the construction of identity online.

"Although he is 'drawn,' and although he is 'a place,' he is not a map," Lockwood announces in the book's first poem. Moments like this one echo in the book. With the surrealist backdrop of the banal, characters like Popeye push (and are pushed) against the surface of their image and of the poems they inhabit. Lockwood still writes in the style of her lacerating yet poignant tweets—a nostalgic and subversive 80s American pop culture ekphrasis—but this book also establishes an austere mythos for a generation of readers bored with irony. The book's affect is flat, but its deceptive surface astutely frames a new poetic subjectivity in a state of constant reinvention.

Lockwood also celebrates the material life of this world in poems like "The Church of the Open Crayon Box," where "you are building the home/ with hand-drawn Log Cabin Font…[y]ou are hoping a man can be really/ alone there…" The poems make frequent reference to the artist's intervention and how the characters act in resistance to her. "The dimension is a coat," she writes in one of many of her allusions to a universe under construction, and from that space, "she brings a detonator into the world."

A poem like "The Salesmen Open Their Trenchcoats, All Filled with Possible Names for the Watch" reminds us that this collection is, in part, a descendant of James Tate's trenchant surrealism. The poem veers back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar by presenting the marketplace's array in the form of insistent traveling salesmen who set briefcases open, "…they gleam with rows/of what could own us…" As a political allegory, this collection makes a case for a more politically orthodox use of surrealist imagery and rhetoric. 

Popeye makes an early poetic appearance in John Ashbery's poem "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape." In Ashbery's poem, the cartoon character "sits in thunder,/ Unthought of…" Ashbery adds a Shakespearian Technicolor to the animated paradigm of Popeye's artificial world, complete with cameos from Wimpy and Sweet Pea and a complex life we don't perceive because of the surface's constraint. In Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, Popeye is Lockwood's "Every (Cartoon) Man" and represents our complicated relationship to production and agency. She uses the cartoon environment to describe the ways we exist as the flattened image on the screen. The book only makes oblique appraisals of what this model of representation means. "A person made of paper is only as fat/as her file," she writes in the poem "The Cartoon's Mother Builds a House in Hammerspace."

Ultimately this book should be read as an incisive examination of how we take contemporary modes of expression for granted. With the same political grit that surrealism brought to fine art at the turn of the 20th century, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black describes today's multimodal world. The affect is occasionally opaque, but the world building is exquisite and strange and Lockwood adds surprisingly moving depth to the cartoon dimension.