This excerpt by Ben Pease is from the much lengthier “Ludlow Reservoirs,” which in turn is only one part of a manuscript that spans hundreds of pages - Fugitives of Speech. A group of disparate high schoolers pass time in small town Massachusetts in the 1990s, often spending it in Ludlow Reservoirs (up until 1910, the primary water supply of Springfield, MA, and now a public recreation spot), and often engaged in making a film using their limited resources. In varying ways each character is an outsider in their own hometown: Sheer, the reluctant jock, Mallender, a boy who hangs out in Jo-Ann Fabrics and who seemingly harbors visions of future events - these characters and others try to find meaning through their actions, unconsciously and not. While Ludlow Reservoirs is a known recreation spot, this landscape, which hovers between the natural and engineered, open to the public but restricted as well, is a place where these teenagers explore and transgress the boundaries of their domestic lives and their ascribed “roles” within their high school.
Fugitives of Speech blends narrative motion and a lyric sensibility into a poetic hybrid. The narrative featuring an ensemble of young people that are bound together in common cause has echoes of the Loser’s Club from Stephen King’s It or the doomed teens of Christopher Pike’s two Chain Letter books. The possibility of locating genre or YA fiction in experimental poetry is very fascinating. There are certainly precedents of YA verse novels: examples that come to mind are Jacqueline Woodson’s award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming, and Ellen Hopkins’ verse novels (including Crank, Burned, Impulse, Glass) that deal with themes of drug addiction, prostitution and mental illness to name a few. But compared to those works, which use well-known methods of lyric free verse, Pease utilizes the full technologies of 21st century contemporary American poetry technique (not to mention sophisticated narrative techniques). The narrative thus does not reveal itself as easily. But why is it that I want to call this the ultimate cutting-edge YA verse novel?
Mostly I’m projecting. Mostly I simply dream that an experimental YA verse novel is possible (“Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another” - Leonard Cohen). Another reason is the work is pervaded by an animating tension between a sense of possibilities and desires on the one hand, and restriction and thwarted yearning on the other - an adolescent sensibility. Little seems as intense and endless as adolescence (reflected in The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or any number of early ‘60s girl group songs) and little seems as fleeting and yet shot through with meaning as thinking back on adolescence (reflected in Clarissa Dalloway’s memories of Bourton). Once the theme from Mega Man 2 and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were the data of the present tense. “Ludlow Reservoirs” includes these sensibilities, and maybe we can say that the work engages with a sense of fascination with and nostalgia for lost time. A coming-of-age story.
In this excerpt there is also a preoccupation with obscured or distorted ways of seeing - whether that is Mallender in Jo-Ann Fabric:
the white polka dots on black
did not draw him in
but the aura stitched around them
made his eyes feel unfocused
or of Mallender’s opaque visions, described later in the store to Casey “I couldn’t see who it was before, but now I know it’s you.” Or, during a scene of filming, the description of “a mirror where one is tricked into seeing the body of another with their own eyes.” Or the idea of filming itself: how it creates doubles, alternatives. Or the description of one of images from the excerpt:
A blurry series of black and white images fades into each other: scrambled porn but just a woman lifting her head back and smiling, neon geometric grid work, what an early video game would look like if transported into the real world, a black marble pyramid, and then the triangle/sun/ouroburos logo spinning on its Z-Axis below the title.
All of these blurred, obscured, or distorted views and visions. Extending horizontally, into a time beyond the present, or vertically into the psyches of the characters. In these instances we have a mixture of mystery, possibility, allure, and menace.
We may also consider our own view and perspective - even with such a lengthy excerpt, it is possible to feel as though one is staring at an Impressionist painting from only inches away - getting a sense of the color and brushstrokes, but having difficulty taking in the whole. The logic of its hybridity rewards, induces, and perhaps requires a reading of a large sample. Such is the nature of composing such a massive and sprawling work. Perhaps a closer kin to Pease’s work is Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid - one is able to see the craftsmanship on the page-level, but its true integrity is at the level of the book. Ben Pease is hundreds of pages deep into something it is hard to find a precedent for. The final product will be a blockbuster.
Dan Magers’s first book of poems, Partyknife, (Birds, LLC) was described by Thurston Moore “as if poet-ghost adrift thru dressing rooms backstage taking notes…Writing poems like these is just as good as starting a band.” Magers is the founder of the online poetry journal Sink Review and the handmade chapbook press Immaculate Disciples Press, which focuses on poetry book and artist collaborations. He lives in Chicago.