Janice Moore Fuller

To Disenchant and Disintoxicate

A Review of Patrick Bizarro’s Every Insomniac Has a Story To Tell

Every Insomniac Has a Story To Tell: Poems by Patrick Bizarro.
Greenville: Independent Press, 2004. 74 pages. ISBN: 0-9722190-6-4.

Reading Patrick Bizzaro’s book Every Insomniac Has a Story To
Tell feels like stepping into the world of a Tom Waits song. In
poem after poem, we encounter many of the same down-and-out
characters inhabiting the same seedy settings that Waits sings
about: winos, pool-hall regulars, unpaid factory workers, aging
exotic dancers.

In many of his songs, Waits chooses to make his drunken underworld
even more inebriated and dislocated than it might normally
be. In “The Piano Has Been Drinking” he uses the perspective of a
barfly to distort the world of a lounge into a comic vision in which
“the juke box has to take a leak,” “the balcony’s on the make,”
“the box office is drooling and the bar stools are on fire.”

Bizarro, on the other hand, seems to side with W. H. Auden who
proclaims that “Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any
other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by
telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” In poem after
poem, Bizarro casts a cold eye on his working class characters, presenting
harsh, unmitigated realities in sober detail. A drunk sitting
on the curb “tumbles / face first to the street,” flattening his nose,
chipping his teeth “like old wine glasses” (“In Front of My
House”). In “Gravity,” a crowd in a bar witnesses a man forcing a
bird tethered by a string to fly into the air again and again until its
legs snap off and fall to the ground. The speaker in “Pay Day”
squats with the other factory workers “on the paint- / blistered,
cement floor / of the locker-room” because they know that “The
eagle shits today.”

While Tom Waits in his song “Pasties & a G-string” uses jackedup,
conjuring language to anesthetize his listeners to the misery of
the dancers and observers in a strip club—(“Portland threw a shot
glass / and a Buffalo squeeze / wrinkles and cherry / and twinky
and pinky / and FeFe live from Gay Paree”)—Bizarro will not let us
turn away from the spectacle of the ageing strippers in a Buffalo
burlesque palace:

          And then the women danced
               onto the stage,
          women older than I had planned
          to watch. And when they disrobed,
          I thought of flaccid layers of skin
          tucked inside girdles, strapped back by bras.

                                                                      (“Alone at the Palace Burlesque”)

In presenting such suffering, Bizarro’s language is so unadorned, it
creates the illusion of being uncrafted. And yet his style seems purposeful.
Sherwood Anderson defended the simple language of the
stories in Winesburg, Ohio as “the language of the streets, of
American towns and cities, the language of the factories and warehouses
where I had worked, of laborers’ rooming houses, the
saloons, the farms” (13–14). In Bizarro’s “Twin Cities,” the speaker
introduces his companion to

               the cities of sawdust-floored bars and cold beer
          shoved down mahogany tables, where
          heavy women brace themselves against the
          winter’s freeze.

          and to a place where

          Men wearing layers of steel inside
          their skulls will butt you
          in the nose if you’re not careful
          about who the hell you bump into.”

Here the Anglo Saxon nouns and verbs—shove, brace, steel, butt,
bump—force the reader to experience the violence of the cities as
vividly as Bizarro’s images themselves do. Unafraid to end a line
with an in-your-face preposition and seemingly suspicious of wellconsidered
line-breaks, Bizarro seems to share Anderson’s concern
that “the telling of tales had got too far away from the manner in
which we men of the time were living our lives” (14).

Bizarro’s stripped-down language not only achieves Wordsworth’s
sense of “real men speaking to men”; it also allows him to make
powerful understatements. In describing “The Man Who Lives
Alone,” who inhabits a room filled with socks “unraveling into
balls” and “only an ashtray / and the smoke that curls,” he succeeds
in presenting a quiet desperation reminiscent of Philip
Larkin’s “Mr. Bleaney”:

          It’s time now for the last kiss
          of bourbon. Time to scrub the empty
          glass. He’s used to this.

As Bizarro’s title Every Insomniac Has a Story To Tell suggests, the
speakers in most of the poems are men who are stuck in a state of
worried wakefulness. No one here gets to escape for long, not
through drunkenness or dream. The mother who drinks to forget
must do it again and again in order to keep the thoughts of “the
man she meets on Tuesday nights” at bay (“Drinking to Forget”).
In “Positions” the speaker realizes that his youthful passion in the
back of a car

          is no more than the soft skin
          of dream all language, a memory
          I awoke to this morning,
          alone, cold, wood
          in my fireplace exploded to ash.

Try as they may to dream themselves free, the characters in these
poems, for the most part, are trapped in a material world fraught
with dangers—a beer bottle to the head, guns under the pillow,
house fires threatening to break out.

The insomniac in these poems wants to dream but is afraid to. “I
have always been a fool for the surface,” the speaker in “The
Shroud of Turin” proclaims, rationalizing that “A man must doubt
what he eats, / even if he eats from his own / garden.” Yet in “The
Dream Undreamed,” the speaker envies the bat he feared the summer
before because it “has hanged itself / upside down / to see the
world the way / you might have if / you’d actually dreamed / your
dream.” And in studying his grandmother’s photograph the speaker
imagines transcendence: “someone sliding under water, / someone
slipping through lips of sea, / someone dropping away, to another
place” (“Wind at Grandmother’s House”).

It is in the book’s final poem, “First Step into the Invisible,” that
the poet/speaker finally instructs his children on how to take small
steps into a world of faith, teaching them to dream as he, perhaps,
has not. He challenges them to learn from the mistakes of “the
sensible / ones who are still / falling through this page”:

          I tell you from my heart:
          believe in magic,
          believe in your personal
          angel. Then step carelessly, wildly.

He, like Auden, still does not believe that poetry is magic. “Nothing
as fragile as a poem / will support you by itself,” he tells the children.
And yet it has been the book’s gradual, almost imperceptible dislocation—
through poem after poem of clear-eyed sleeplessness—that
makes this final intoxicated step into the unconscious and the invisible
seem well-earned.

Works Cited
Anderson, Sherwood. “Anderson on Winesburg, Ohio.” Winesburg, Ohio: Text
and Criticism. Ed. John H. Ferres. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Auden, W.H. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1968.

Waits, Tom. Small Change. Asylum Records, 1976.