Review of Nick Courtright’s PUNCHLINE
Nick Courtright’s collection Punchline contains 41 poems, and of these 41 poems, 27 have one- or two-word titles; in fact, only eight poems have titles longer than three words. This might seem like a strange observation, but a similar pattern appears in the text of the poems: most of Courtright’s poetry consists of one-line stanzas and couplets, and after most stanzas, he inserts wide stanza breaks. In addition to the stanza breaks are section breaks, which Courtright marks with either bullets or Roman numerals. Overall, these stylistic decisions lend Punchline a gossamer, minimalist poetic. Between the slender stanzas and the broad swaths of white space, one could finish Courtright’s work quickly, but one should not strive for speed. To use a word that people tend to define incorrectly, one should peruse the book.
For one, brisk readers might overlook the literary references. For example, Punchline begins with a prefatory poem called “The Despot,” and like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the first poem of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, “The Despot” opens with a flaneur, a stroller of the streets:
The streets down and nights through
which the despot wanders,
dressed in pajamas
making his selections, these are the streets everyone knows
we cannot trust.
Because who can you trust?
Although not an overt allusion, it is enough to spark the reader’s interest, an interest soon fanned by Courtright’s poetic connections:
use sand to make glass,
through which we see to the other side,
and to make computer chips,
with which we store our knowledge, and gain more of it,
and seek the face of God
and find it
on the internet. Maybe
the face of God was always there, in the sand itself,
and the ants had access to it
Connections like these provide Punchline with its most potent moments. For example, another such moment appears in “Urban Tapestry”: “The city was alive with / the lanterns we all are // when held up to a bright enough light.” Again, although one could finish Courtright’s work quickly, he or she might miss nods to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and Weezer’s “Undone—The Sweater Song” to name a few.
Likewise, to skim the text would not roil the deeper reaches of Courtright’s poetry. For example, the title of the collection is Punchline, which, on the surface, would imply a humorous book, but when one reads the work, most of the poems discuss grand ideas, like God, death, enlightenment, the cosmos, one’s legacy, and so forth. Although there is some funny verse, such as the poem “Invent the Universe” and its blind man who drops coconuts on two people stuck in a well, the title mimics how people struggle with the grand ideas above. When people hear the setup of a joke, the dialogue, descriptions, actions, and characters are often bizarre or absurd, but listeners understand that the setup will coalesce with the punch line, that it will all make sense in the end. This phenomenon is true of life’s enigmas too. Readers find such sentiment in the poem “Ghosts,” which ends “of all the poems in the world please let just one figure it out,” and especially in the title poem “Punchline,” which ends:
it’s in the punchline that is all our being and all our seeking—
the roadsigns of proof, the victory of one definition
over others, the abstract
absurdity of living, here, where this is and why.
When readers encounter these poems near the end of Punchline, the hunger for comprehension is suddenly fed. Like the satisfaction of a punch line, these lines help readers understand the great unknowns that pepper the book. This is not a lone epiphany either. For example, a diagram of the moon and sun adorn the book’s beginning and end, and not until the final poem “Mosquito” are they explained. When readers finish the poem, they realize that Courtright is a shrewd comedian, crafting his setup so well that a second or third read-through is necessary to appreciate its delivery.
Ezekiel Black is a lecturer of English at Gainesville State College. Before this appointment, he attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Verse, Sonora Review, GlitterPony, Skein, Invisible Ear, Tomfoolery Review, Tarpaulin Sky, InDigest, Drunken Boat, CutBank, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakwood, Georgia and edits the audio poetry journal Pismire.