“Thank you for asking me to submit to your magazine, / Dead Fluffy Coyote, / but I haven’t been writing much poetry lately. / I’ve been rockin’. / Or, I should say, rockin’ again.” In the swaggering opening lines of The Virgin Formica, Sharon Mesmer lays out its central conceit: that poetry is the least of her concerns––she’s been livin’ and will continue to do so, regardless of what the academic peanut gallery has to say about it. Often flowing down the page in lanky, listlike columns, her profane and funny poems venerate the vernacular and the blue-collar through rhapsodizing not just about “Paris gutters” and a “blurry view of Jersey” but also about the less expected pleasures of “fisting” and the “Wendy’s salad bar.”
The poems collected here invariably begin well—there is the smutty, needy appeal of Mesmer’s voice, its comic, vulnerable strut—yet too soon the mythologizing, name-dropping, cataloguing, and invocations begin to pile up, the poems’ worlds become unwieldy, and the poet starts to sound almost frantic. Mesmer’s lax sense of the line (there is little enjambment, little internal rhyme) and her repetitive syntax contribute to a slackness of form that places an overriding emphasis on plot. Accordingly, the poems’ endings—which the reader grows to anticipate, as with jokes—can feel tacked on, resorting either to superficial stabs at larger truths through puns (“Everything depends on the deep end”) or to punk posturing (“And their line breaks / kick your line breaks’s / ass”; “Now die, you fuckers”).
This braggadocio is occasionally pleasing in its abandon, but when it is employed without humor it can quickly devolve into the anger and anxiety that all too frequently—and blindly—propel Mesmer’s poems. Her target is a writing establishment from which she clearly feels excluded, yet the source of her furious insecurity seems to stem from more than just the hard-hearted poetry world. Either way, artless sniping at MFA programs and “famous” poets is the collection’s least appealing aspect. Better are those poems that give themselves over to a lyric, fantastic reverie, from which Mesmer’s comedy naturally asserts itself: “Noon. / Arabic Bride Avenue. / The sun’s inexorable presence.”
Although Mesmer’s unabashed humor places her among contemporary New York women poets also so engaged—Jennifer L. Knox and Shanna Compton, for instance—one can glimpse Denis Johnson’s “top-quality and rock-bottom heart.” If Johnson recognizes that “things get pretty radical in the dark,” Mesmer attends to what occurs under duress of light. Though less flattering than Johnson’s elegant nocturnes, her work is also a testament to a kind of courage, perhaps dubiously assumed: “Instead of walking on the street / Which was dangerous / I walked through the arcades / Which was more dangerous.”