The University of Akron Press
Carnival by Jason Bredle is your worst nightmare if you fear the biological rarities that compose a freak show. Throughout the collection of almost-always-perfectly-square prose poems, the reader should expect to run into the Platypus Boy, tiny towns undergoing tiny disasters, and Giancarlo, an untamed, man's man that interacts regularly with the narrator. Each of Bredle's poems is an individual telenovela, but they also string together to create a Days of our Lives sized epic that includes repeating characters, steadied by a consistent narrator, for whom the reader will grow to care, and at times, pity.
The following lines from "The Apple" capture Bredle's flighty, stream-of-consciousness tone well:
I won a racist prize in a crying contest. This is the kind of thing
that makes me want to shout in front of a bakery! What was I
supposed to do? I answered the telephone. A woman on the
other end was talking, but I couldn't tell if she was talking to
me or to someone nearby her because I didn't really understand
what she was talking about. My head was swimming in sadness.
The unsung hero of the collection is the narrator, whose mood ranges from confused to terrified. Throughout Carnival, the reader is inside a crazed mind that occasionally reveals feelings of discontent and loneliness. In "Motorcycle Ambulance," the "road is pumping through [the narrator's] veins, and it's lonely." The line opens the poem, which opens an exploration of the narrator's feeling of restraint. After riding through the desert, the narrator laments that he "just want[s] to party without being hassled by the man." This poem reveals the suppression of the narrator and how his interaction with certain characters through the collection turns innocence to experience.
Bredle tosses a fair amount of popular culture into Carnival, but it never feels misplaced or misrepresenting. In "The Contestant," the narrator makes a commentary on reality TV culture:
Dunking your screaming head into a tank of scorpions, removing
your screaming head from a tank of scorpions, and dunking
your screaming head into another tank of scorpions is something
you sometimes do for someone you love. Have you ever eaten a
termite? Have you ever gathered around a bonfire with gorgeous
people on a tropical island and cried as you watched a video of
someone you love flirting with someone you hate?
Bredle and his narrator are intrigued, even mesmerized by these acts of devotion. The scent of desperation hangs thick around the narrator throughout most of the collection, but it is a quality that is ultimately charming.
Overall, charming is a good adjective to describe Carnival, as it aims to please different types of readers. One could open up to a random poem and have fun with the contained story, but just as easily read the collection cover-to-cover while becoming enwrapped in the adventures and tragedies of the narrator. The cover of the book sums it all up nicely: you can take a dip or you can dive in headfirst.
Nathan Kemp is a graduate poetry student at the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He has published poetry in The Bakery, HOUSEFIRE, and Red Lightbulbs, among others. He has interned for Black Lawrence Press and The University of Akron Press, and is a newly-appointed poetry editor for Barn Owl Review.
Also by Nathan Kemp:
Review of American Busboy by Matthew Guenette