The Tragicomedy of Try Never


by Geoffrey Hilsabeck

Try Never,
by Anthony Madrid,
Canarium Books, 64 pp.

A student who later dropped my poetry class wrote to me at the beginning of spring semester: “I want to understand everything I’m familiar with and unfamial unfamiliar with. I believe a deeper understanding of poetry is where I should start.” I wish he had stayed long enough for me to give him some poems from Anthony Madrid’s new book, Try Never, which was published last year by Canarium Books. I think they might have helped him on his journey. They have helped me on mine.

Madrid is rightly celebrated for his virtuosity. Try Never dazzles with its wild rhymes (dharma and puerta, teenagers and procedurals), cracked wisdom (“The thing about water is every drop/ Has spent a few lifetimes as snow”), and dizzying multiplicity. Reading it is like riding a speedboat through Venice with a grinning, heartbroken gondolier.

Yes, heartbreak: poetry seems to require it. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” said Robert Frost. Look no further than the table of contents for this book’s mood: “Brake Light Out,” “Cold Spring,” “Injured Bone,” “Boarded-Up Shop,” “Hole in the Floor.” Everything is broken, defeated, askew—but also slapstick and celebratory. Along with the injured bones are “Flying Ants” and a “Quinceañera.” That last is my favorite poem in the collection. Here are the first of its seventeen stanzas:

Quinceañera. It’s not up to me.
Didgeridoo if it’s sadder and wiser.
Seventeen saturnine stanzas neither
About nor intended for teenagers.

Quinceañera. I’ll teach you procedurals.
Didgeridoo and a withering jasmine.
This is the day that the master craftsman
Fits the last leg to the table.

Quinceañera. Hausmarchen and fable.
We’re never like Rilke, weren’t born to revere.
And the eye is not even the source of tears:
Tears come from a long way off.

Like most of the poems in the book, “Quinceañera” is based on an old Welsh form called the englyn. Englyns, at least in Madrid’s hands, come in tercets (3-line stanzas) and quatrains (4-line stanzas). Every stanza opens with a refrain, the first half of the first line, as above. There are 16 or 17 stanzas. Often the second and third lines of every stanza rhyme (jasmine and craftsman!), and sometimes the first line of a stanza rhymes with the last line of the previous stanza. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch quotes the scholar Gwen Young: “The englyn can be used magnificently for every poetic purpose comprised within a loose definition of epigram: amatory, satiric, elegiac, exhortatory, descriptive, reflective, religious, cautionary, and comic.” Try Never is all these, and one more—tragic.

Is that the wrong word for a book this fun? Try Never isn’t serious—it has a wonderful sense of humor, both goofy and caustic—but it is mournful, not just in a mood. Something more than melancholy gives gravity to these poems; it’s their tragic sense. The poems have a drama to them that arises from an unresolvable conflict between freedom and constraint. Inherent in the form, the drama expresses itself over and over in the book’s brilliant images and epigrams. And so the poems pulse with frustration, constantly pressing against the fact that, as he says at one point, “our fate is sealed.” They chafe, and then they laugh, and then they throw up their hands. Macbeth is here but so is Much Ado About Nothing, or rather “Much/Adidgerado about nothing.”

Other reviewers have mostly ignored this drama. Like any good spell, and these are spells—“Try cancer and gemini, fishgoat and child”; “sugar-palm fiber, double-edged saw”—the music of the verse is beguiling, and reviewers (this one included) are duly beguiled. “Most of all, though, it’s the rhythm,” says the review in Full Stop. Over at Hyperallergic the reviewer writes along the same lines: Madrid is “working a kind of sly, musical magic,” he says, and the poems have a right wrongness about them. In Chicago Review the book is all about “energy and rule,” “tight syllogisms,” pleasure in rhyme. And at the The Rumpus the book is described as a play of surfaces, “quippy, epigrammatic, philologically inclined, and lexically promiscuous.” Yes, definitely, that last one in particular. But also fucking sad.

Bottles and cans. They can’t make me go.
Like holding your ear to the side of a hill.
If it sounds like the ocean, you know it’s a shell.
You can talk during this.

Nobody’s hurting you. Nobody yet.
My stomach is starting to feel upset.
People pretend like they don’t understand?
Anvil, hold that pose.

You wouldn’t dare, tables and chair.
Cutting a cake with the door of a car.
The sun is a “G-type, main sequence” star?
Believe it when I see it.

Well! what have we here? Goodnight your vow.
Nothing and no one can help me now.
Take it away, habitual happiness!
Time to lie and mean it.

The formal constraints of the poems in Try Never—rhyme, refrain, stanza—the allies of rhythm, admit a simple but important truth into the poems: our lives are shaped by forces beyond our control, whether natural or supernatural, bosses or gods. Our choices are limited, our paths circumscribed, “cabin’d, cribb’d, confined,” to quote Macbeth. The images and epigrams, always clear, sharply defined, and surprising, make this same point. They express frustration, disappointment, defeat. “Steering wheel locked, rock the car back and forth./ The people looking out for you—aren’t.” “Whole set of keys broken off in the locks.” “Why should gravity work? And why orbits? And why/ Must I sit through my own performance?”

Yet despite those limitations, imagination, desire, will, all of them consorting with language in some mysterious and profound way that I’ll never understand, go about their business, cooking up schemes, dreaming up worlds to inhabit. “Inconvenient, the needs of the soul,” says Madrid. The resulting tension is the source of the incredible energy of these poems. Without that tension, they would get as old as Edward Lear (a hero of Madrid’s), but I could read this book for hours.

Form is not much in favor these days. The most recent issue of Poetry—not that we should let that magazine set the standard just because it has the temerity to call itself Poetry and pays its writers by the line—doesn’t have a single poem written in form. There are uniform stanzas, couplets and tercets, mostly; indented lines; patterns of various kinds. These features shape the poems in a general sense, but they are not determining, the way the englyn determines the poems in Try Never.

All that’s missing in this marvelous book is a little tenderness here and there. “I have passed too many years among/cool, designing beings,” the poet says at one point. I felt that way at times reading these poems. Some candor, some softness is lacking. But otherwise it’s an absolutely stunning collection.

Photography by Shad.

About the Author:

Geoffrey Hilsabeck is the author of Riddles, Etc. (The Song Cave, 2017). His poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Paris Review Daily and on NPR. He teaches at West Virginia University and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.