The Truth Is We Are Perfect

by Janaka Stucky,
Third Man Books, 2015,
76 pages, paper, $15.95,
ISBN# 978-0-9913361-1-1
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“The Art of Loss Is a Lost Art,” reads the title of the third poem in Janaka Stucky’s volume of poetry, The Truth Is We Are Perfect, recently published by Third Man Books. Unlike Bishop’s infamous poem “One Art,” the narrator in Stucky’s collection does not concede to loss nor accept prescribed stages of grief. Instead, he approaches loss as a spiritual initiation through which one is broken open and transformed. More ecstatic dirge than “grief poetry,” the verses are tough, unpredictable, and spare.

The aforementioned poem* sets the tone for the first section of the book, which preludes and sets the tone for grief as does death itself. The poem opens with ritualistic images, the speaker vacillating between acceptance and denial:

Because I love a burning thing

I made my heart a field of fire

In this way I own nothing

Can lose nothing

The first stanza speaks to the impermanence of love and life itself; the image of fire in the chest is stunning in this metaphor. Reading the second stanza, with its “I own nothing / Can lose nothing,” I think, I’ve met this guy before; he wants to make himself insusceptible to hurt. But as the poem carries on, he can’t defend himself against the pain of love lost, admitting, “The mooncake you fed me remains / A ghost upon my tongue.” As the poem ends, we see just how vulnerable the speaker has become:

I make with my mouth

The hour of your arrival

Again and again

In my indefinite sleep

Many of the poems end with stark images that seem to encapsulate the felt sense of loss in the body yet remain stubbornly mysterious in their literal meaning, the effect of which can be quite awesome. For example, “I’m a Fool Who Are You” haunts with visceral images that give the reader just enough to feel the hurt:

When you begin my world buckles into

Jagged invisibles

Your skin glows like a sidewalk in the dark

Your mouth an alley with my murder inside

The longing and betrayal evoked in these images are at once wonderfully real and dreamlike. Certainly when one loses a loved one, a part of himself or herself is lost as well, but the author takes this cliché and exaggerates it to the extreme wherein loss means murder, a cutting off of the part that was connected to the loved one. By embodying the absence of the lover, the speaker is transformed and becomes something else entirely.

Similar tropes used less effectively in some of the shorter poems in the collection feel more like rough sketches than finished drafts. For instance, “Suicide Balm,” puzzles rather than intrigues:

Your lipstick strapped tightly to my chest

I run into a crowded restaurant

And plug it in

While I appreciate the imaginative figuring of lipstick as grenade, the unfortunate pun in the title does not help clarify what the speaker is hypothetically doing when he plugs in the tube of lipstick. Assuming that a clip must be removed from a grenade, rather than plugged in, in order to explode, is the speaker imagining himself blowing up the restaurant or plugging into an electrical socket?

Luckily, though, these missteps are the exception to the rule. The transfixing elegy in the last section of the book exonerates all previous sins. Because each poem is titled “Recreating a

Miraculous Object,” this group reads like a series but also feels like one long poem. The most surreal and wild section of the book, it contains short pithy poems, long chants, and non sequiturs. Whether reckoning his entrance into the world from the belly of a whale, chanting “I perish in amazement,” or bolding declaring, “I want to be a part of all / Things I am a part of,” Stucky ultimately asks us to wake up to our own broken hearts. In a culture in which we are given infinite means to numb out rather than engage, it is not only refreshing but pertinent for us to follow suit and begin to “unlearn ourselves.”

*Janaka Stucky reads his poem “The Art of Loss Is a Lost Art” at
Kristen Stake