Jason Tandon, Quality of Life
Black Lawrence Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2015 (76 pages)
“Friends” is an especially appropriate opening poem for Jason Tandon’s new collection Quality of Life as it combines elements of humor, the mildly surreal and the quirkily poignant, elements that return again and again, though not always all at once, in many of the other fine poems in this volume. A well-ordered free verse lyric with four, four line stanzas, “Friends” features a persona who claims he hasn’t “spoken a word… for a better part of June,” and who seeks to escape this isolation through very conventional means (listening to live music at a bar, interacting with a best friend and, finally, coming home to his “new best friend,” his wife ) only to find that “at the hour of darkness/tequila triples in price,” that his friend has been “born again” and promises him only “damnation” and that his wife confides in him that his “headlamp is unnecessary./ Just be ready to turn the page.” This poem may be an invitation for the reader to turn the pages which allow us to travel through the darkness of contemporary life with a poet who will make the journey disturbing and amusing at once. Tandon’s persona may be likened to a less resigned Prufrock, someone who knows how doomed most attempts at true rapport probably are, but yet suspects it may not be as fatal as Prufrock believed if others respond to our attempts at connection with “That is not what I meant at all.”
Tandon, in one relationship poem after another, seems to be asking the key question of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: “What is it then between us?” His answers vacillate somewhere between a suggestion that “it” is something inevitably thwarting that stays in the way of our connection, and a more optimistic notion that nothing really can keep us from connection, except perhaps ourselves.
Tandon’s use of humor, adroit and gently biting, helps to complicate his response to life’s challenges. In “The Book of Love” he fends off his fiancee’s serious question about why he loves her with a series of jokes, culminating with him asking her why she loves him: “I am promptly hit/ with a bulleted list and upon hearing these reasons I begin to fall/ in love with myself…” The very title of “Christmas Putz” may make a reader chuckle, thereby preparing us for the surreal turn the poem takes when we are asked to imagine as real the little figures used to make up a Christmas village around the tree. Titles again come into play with the “Sermon on the Mount,” the meek having no chance to inherit this earth where the speaker daydreams about threatening a jaywalking pedestrian with a gun, only to be awakened from his reverie by the driver behind him asking “if I was fucking retarded.” A still more telling poem, however, is “Plumbing,” in which the speaker considers the need for isolation in order to write: “unplug the phone and lock the door,” and refuse to let life’s ordinary demands, “a stack of bills/ the need to buy milk,” distract one’s artistic purpose. This attempt is thwarted, however, by the existence of two things, his wife and a toilet that runs over “her bare feet splashing/ in an inch of rising water.” What might seem at first a rueful, slightly gross image to end the poem and Tandon’s attempt to focus on his writing, is, potentially, a lot more. Relationship, having a wife in the first place, counters one’s isolation “for better or worse.” And living inserts conflict which cannot be locked out; the mundane, messy conflict of an overflowing toilet insists on our response, more so than most poems. Of course, the final irony is that we learn of this thwarted attempt to concentrate solely on the self via a published poem the author managed out of the experience, a guide then to embracing life’s messy insistence and even making something positive out of it.
The volume presents plenty of darkly surreal comedy in poems trying to laugh through inevitable loss or abandonment (“Early Retirement” seeks for parental approval that will never come; “Divorce” ends with the escape of “Enough change in the cup holders/ for miles of toll roads”), but this persona, with more graciousness and thereby more hope than Prufrock, refuses to discount the big meaning of small efforts at connection. Familial love, something Prufrock will not pursue, Tandon is willing to offer without apology as a curative to the potential cynicism of contemporary readers of poetry. In “On Turning Thirty-Four” the speaker finds himself driving off to rummage an abandoned picnic table, “while my son squats in his kiddie pool/ licking cake batter/ from a wooden spoon.” In “Our Rescue” his budding family’s compassion for an abandoned dog is in many ways its own reward. In “Christmas Lights” he isn’t afraid to invoke George Bailey, “and the town of Bedford Falls/singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, /in the drums of your frost- nipped ears.” Just like Bailey, Tandon leaves us with the impression that it maybe can be a “wonderful life,” not because it’s a constant string of successes and happy moments but because of our ability, if we choose to use it, to see something funny and something redeeming, not in all things, but in as many things as possible. This is why in poems like “Waiting For Sleep” even his wife’s snoring is something to give thanks for, why in “After Rain” Tandon knows enough not to reject even the smallest moments of domestic bliss again with an image of snoring, “the baby with his old man baldness/ snoring delicately.”
Tandon demonstrates throughout Quality of Life that he understands loss, the ethereal nature of any good moment. Yet he still insists what we think and do has to matter and that our resiliency and sympathy are what make it matter. And so in “Mother’s Day” even as he tells us it is his wife’s first, he insists on taking a short cut home, through the Catholic cemetery, where he witnesses a presumed scene of a little girl and her father, downtrodden in sadness while placing flowers at the little girl’s mother’s headstone. Yet, upon further reflection, the poet realizes:
“…the girl wasn’t toddling
she was running,
the man wasn’t stooping, he was kneeling—
and what he wiped from his face
were not tears but sweat
having pulled the weeds beside the grave
under an unseasonably hot, noonday sun.
Love and care exist even beyond the grave for the little girl and her father, and Tandon takes that in, stops laughing long enough to see something beautiful, or perhaps create it, to dissipate the promise of “too soon, too soon” that awaits all of us. Tandon’s gift then is to know there is a time for laughter, a time for tears, and sometimes a time just to work and sweat through the pain, to our common blessing, which is also our common curse. Somehow that curse loses much of its power to overwhelm, once we have turned all the pages in Tandon’s masterful Quality of Life.
Joe Benevento has published fiction, poetry and essays in over three hundred places. Poetry editor of GHLL since 1995, with numerous collections of verse and several novels to his credit, he teaches literature and creative writing at Truman State University. The second in the Cupelli Brothers mystery series, Saving St. Teresa, appeared this year. Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems: 1983-2015 is just out from Purple Flag Press.