Full disclosure: Nick DePascal is a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico’s creative writing MFA, through which the Blue Mesa Review is also produced. That being said, if you look for his debut collection of poetry Before You Become Improbable (West End Press 2014) through the university’s library, it isn’t there. What you will find, however, if you look, is the dissertation that became the book. I note this, as DePascal did at a recent reading, because attached to its entry in the library database is this list of related subjects: families, parenting, marriage, death, and pride and vanity. The concision of this diminutive list is inaccurate (add to it at least disaffected bank transactions, corporate life, road trips, sex, whales, seasons, and animals both wild and domestic) but it does arrive at the major themes that string this vivid, surreal collection together.
We pick up the thread of family—likened to a pack of wild dogs— from the first poem, grounded in a childhood marked by death. Thereafter the two are twin, circling, on linoleum floors, in hospitals, on the doorstep, in a horse trailer. Death is familiar in these poems, always around the corner. The proximity of death is a subject shared by the poems of Emily Dickinson, from whose letters the title of this book comes: “I should have liked to see you, before you became improbable. War feels to me an oblique place.” For Dickinson, it is an expression in past tense, a regret, a longing in the face of possible and probable death. For DePascal, it is a trumpet, blowing notes in the present, asking us to see life.
And life, as wife, juts her pregnant belly forth, asserting itself, and later, what springs from it breathes quietly in the night or keeps you up through it. I can’t remember another collection of poetry featuring a spouse as central as the wife in these poems. She appears in every season alongside an old house: making shapes in the snow; as lights; as an auctioneer; as scent and cheekbones; while baking, while dressing; while in a boat. “I marry her again and again.” Life too, must be constantly reaffirmed, through birdsong, ritual dance, belief in mystery: “The welcome mat is out and our arms wide open.”
Improbability bears another sense within these pages. The improbable as surreal—strange images that inform the commonplace: whetting tongues on stones to stab the air with voices; a whale on Central Avenue—the poet as whale, waiting to die and reading a book about oceans; a jungle menagerie in a corporate meeting contemplating synergy—who to eat first. Animals figure in these surreal passages but also as commonplace companions, marking time along with their human counterparts: chickens counted, birds named, horses slaughtered. Not to harp on the Dickinson connection but one is reminded of her in these instances: “Several of nature’s people / I know, and they know me; / I feel for them a transport / Of cordiality.”
As for that last item in the library’s list of related subjects, there is a poem in this collection titled “Vanity”:
I am only making plans
for a great escape—
for the after party—
I stopped trying years ago—
I am a twenty dollar bill
a drunken string quartet
leaping from a balcony—
I am the savvy dead man slickly
pocketing the profits
of the living.
Some might argue that a certain amount of pride and vanity are prerequisites for anyone trying to publish. Let’s just say that in this case they’ve earned their keep.
Charlie Wormhoudt is a first-year MFA student in Poetry at the University of New Mexico.