Witness This 'Trash': Eve Packer's Playland: Poems 1994-2004
by Brynn Saito
Yes, trash—but not in the pejorative. By "trash" I mean what Eve means: that "glitter- / soaked rain- / wet orange / day-glo" stuff of stretch marks, pebbles and rainstorms, not "garbage," for, according to Eve Packer, "garbage is
fleas in the
i'll be garbage,
tag me hard-core
In Playland—Eve Packer's second collection of poetry, published by Fly By Night Press—Packer holds NYC's grit and excess up to the light, then makes it shine. Everything from the cotton bikini briefs of a woman working at "Lingerie" to a pick-up full of ash-covered firefighters comes under Packer's poet-gaze. And that's the city for you: schizo, dazzling, destroyed, heartbreaking. Packer's ability—her fierce intent—to take it all in makes this a brave collection of before-and-after poetry: before the ashes, before the Disneyfication of Times Square, after a love affair, after infidelity, and after September, 2001. Naturally rhythmic, sensual, and spontaneous, one can easily see why Packer performs her work with a jazz ensemble.
Playland begins "in this grey fluorescent box of wild dreams, / schlock fantasy, backstage for the suck & fuck / school of sad and horny fish." A section called Fantasy Booth opens the book; the poems here reference 42nd Street in the early 1990s, when Packer ventured through the doors of places like Show World and Peepworld, "intrigued, scared, and challenged" by the prospect of entering a zone constructed for the male gaze only. Packer is a watcher, too, but a compassionate one: the speaker in these poems is never voyeuristic, unless ironically and playfully so. What rises from these encounters are the voices and stories of the performers and performed-for: "i ask him / what do men want / he says freedom, freedom / & a little variety." A poem called "peepworld (5)" begins: "what do you wish / for the new year:" A series of answers follows: "harder work… better tippers… big dicks, more sex… men treat us better…."
Packer's voice is but a vessel for the life-sounds around her; she's a streetwise witness whose poems deliver the immediacy of a moment without guessing at the future or dragging out the past. This position and tone work to her advantage when, in the book's last section called window: 9/11, Packer records her experience of the days following the disaster.
18 min apart:
Ian: smoke billowing
doesn't seem possible—
Each observation is exact and situated—never general or sweeping—allowing the poem to read and feel like a document, lean in content and very precise. The reader is free to reflect on the evidence without drowning beneath rhetoric or sentimentality. Even the form accentuates the laid bare quality of the work: no capitals here, no upper case "I," very few commas, and ampersands instead of "ands." By this moment in the collection, we trust Packer's voice: she's lived this city, through both grit and shine—she's been "cruisin' with moxie," contemplated shoe styles on the uptown C, and done every "filthy, nasty, sweet / thing." She's even posed the question "what is love" to taxi drivers, bouncers, lovers and mothers. So when we get to the poem about taking calls at St. Vincent's Hospital, September 14, 2001, and the girl named Amaryllis who is the "first to ask / is there a list / of the dead," we trust our writer to take us there. Packer is best when she is achingly particular with her choices; phrases like "stench of / death & / heartbreak," bog down the clarity with abstractions. Luckily, they are few and far between.
There's much wonder among poets these days concerning poetry about September 11. How to write into it without sounding overwrought? How to say something fresh without perpetuating newspeak or exploiting spectacle or dishonoring one's own or another's experience? How to find a language in the wreckage? Be like Eve: be brave and honest and tough. And listen with all of one's senses. "i have cravings, i have desires," says the speaker in "museum,"
to carry the colors of earth
on & in
& sometimes i do