BooksWeekend

Good Vibrations: Prose Poetry as Stand-Up Comedy

In Jeremy Sigler’s My Vibe offers refreshing honesty about failure within the system of calculation and profit.

There’s a lovely moment in Wim Wenders’s film Paris, Texas (1984) when the character played by Harry Dean Stanton describes to his estranged wife, played by Nastassja Kinski, how, before their relationship disintegrated, even the most mundane activities, such as going to the grocery store, felt like exciting adventures. I was reminded of this scene while reading Jeremy Sigler’s My Vibe; Sigler’s short narratives, ranging from a couple paragraphs to a few pages, transform everyday experiences into funny, fraught, absurd, and, occasionally, triumphant events.

The style of My Vibe is in keeping with the brief and hybrid prose of works such as Lydia Davis’s micro-fictions and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009). Yet, while those models rely on flashes of insight, ranging from the modest to the dramatic, the pleasure of Sigler’s approach is its scarcity of enlightening moments, as its narrator stumbles from foible to frustration to minor victory, such as getting a stranger to smile. As Sigler proclaims, “But it’s my off-ness that has potential. Even when I’m slipping.” All of this might sound a bit Kafka-esque, but in My Vibe the small — and ultimately harmless — chaos that follows its protagonist is closer to Buster Keaton, as so many of Sigler’s encounters have an almost filmic quality, of watching and being watched.

Resembling monologues more than stories, the lack of conventional narrative shades My Vibe more toward poetry than prose. Sigler repeatedly identifies his fragments as poetry and describes being a poet as a noble aspiration and poetry as perhaps the highest art form. However, this is immediately qualified and undermined by a comical voice of abjection:

Basically, I’m hard up for humor. I’m desperate for the intoxication of a little LOL. I’d rather receive a quick bolt of irreversible humiliation than be obliged to keep up some kind of mannequin disposition all day.

If I were NOT one to offer up my daily experience as the subject matter of ongoing comic relief, I’d be tricking everyone into thinking that I actually think highly of myself!

While it seems that Sigler wants My Vibe to be considered poetry, he also plays the stand-up comic (one piece describes teaching a class on stand-up comedy at an art school), the conceptual artist (as when the narrator pins a pair of used A.P.C. jeans to the wall and declares it art), and the performance artist (many of these pieces were first publicly delivered as rambling and shaggy “readings”). In other words, his aspiration may be less a hybrid genre than a hybrid life.

This notion of poetry is about freeing oneself from a system of increasing calculation and profit. My Vibe’s honesty about failure within this system is refreshing, as is the narrator’s persistence in the face of it. Sigler accompanies this with curiosity about the ephemeral, the overlooked, the tossed away, slyly metaphorized by a wad of used tissues in the pocket of Sigler’s middle-school khakis: “As Ben and I examined the collection of snot-rags that had been set out across the big table in the science room, we came to appreciate each specimen’s quirky individual character.” The purposefully plainspoken quality of the writing reinforces both a poetics and a politics of the everyday — in a world in which so many people and species have become disposable — as Sigler unravels its various formalities, its “mannequin disposition.”

At the end of Paris, Texas, Stanton drives off alone into the night after reuniting Kinski and their child. The viewer is left to decide if Stanton knows that he hasn’t yet overcome the inner demons that originally destroyed his relationship or if he no longer believes in the normative family structure — a quandary My Vibe flirts with at times. At one point, Sigler describes the role of the poet through the story of reconnecting with an elementary school friend who became a truck driver before working on a cargo ship that separated him from his wife and children for six months of the year. “A real poet,” Sigler deadpans. Later, the narrator mentions his own “stubborn desire . . . to continue to live in a malleable fantasy.” Readers are thus never quite certain where facts end and fiction begins, which makes My Vibe an ars poetica as well.

My Vibe (2017) is published by Spoonbill Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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