Heather Salus

Review of The Hows and Whys of My Failures by Dan Nowak
Pittsburgh: Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014. $6.00

Dan Nowak's chapbook, The Hows and Whys of My Failures, opens with a pick-up line. "You're beautiful like a dolphin," the speaker is told. Unsurprisingly, he is not seduced. Rather than spark conversation between two people, this pick-up line catapults the speaker deeper into himself. He wonders why he doesn't "find dolphins any / more attractive than the next ocean dweller" and if "this is an inherent flaw in [his] own personality." This encounter introduces a fixation that runs through Nowak's poems: the complications inherent in communicating with each other.

In this collection, language frequently fails its speakers. "This is my rifle" again finds the speaker encountering a stranger, one who "always look[s] like she's about to leave." Even though the speaker can picture an entire night with her-- how she may "use too much teeth or not enough lip or just enough skirt to roll [his] eyes back" and the shape of her teeth shouts "kiss kiss kiss kiss"-- no actual words pass between them.

Even when the speaker physically connects to another person, the chasm between self and other is too wide to bridge. "Why i can never invite you over after I drink moscato all night" explicates a crisis of perception while drunkenly kissing a partner. Absurdity ensues when, out of nowhere, the speaker begins thinking about armadillos:

whenever we start kissing I think about
armadillos like armadillos don't drool
their little drippy drip saliva doesn't taste
a thing like yours but how do I really know?

In other words: if I can't even be sure that my lover's saliva doesn't taste like an armadillo's saliva, how can I be sure I know anything about this person at all?

The threats of misunderstanding, warped perception, and miscommunication lurk within the whole collection, but the poems never become mired in them. Instead, many derive sly levity from language's failure to communicate reality. "What is implied" tells the story of a writer trying to convey a woman's biography; however, he can't overcome his temptation to lie, especially since he's never sure that "his lies" aren't "her honesties." He suggests that her biography might need some doctoring, anyway: "thank you for the lies, for my lies, for the little bits that might / be you, for the mythology or for your mythology. your story is boring." The liberties he takes with her life-- made possible because language has no fidelity to reality-- liven up his job as a biographer.

We again encounter the speaker taking advantage of language's malleability in "a slight retelling of Greek mythology with bourbon." Here, he realizes he can keep his lover close with a few stretches of the truth:

what can I say to get you to stay out just a few
hours longer a few moments where you will grab my
hand and I will let you because i've one more night
in this city or at least that's what i'll say because it
make you hold my hand tighter

In so many poems, the chasm between language and the world can be a source of hand-wringing. In this collection, Nowak suggests that it can be a guilty pleasure, too.

You can purchase The Hows and Whys of my Failures here.

Heather Salus is a graduate of The University of Illinois' MFA program in poetry. She lives near Chicago with her polydactyl cat, Rhiannon, and currently works as a permissions researcher (look it up). Other obsessions include book art and way too much music. She recently rejoined twitter as @wildflowerfever.

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