Reviewed June 15, 2012 by Nick Sturm.
If Sommer Browning lived on Whiskey Island she would build a small, yet comfortable house out of broken furniture, tires, and ship-parts. She would keep seagulls as pets and feed them pieces of her hearts and tell them jokes. The one thing out of all the things in the universe she would bring with her to this island would be an astronaut suit. She would wear the astronaut suit and dance and the seagulls would also dance. At night you would hear a sound drifting over the water and that sound would be laughter. You would consider this laughter, and you would know there was a party, and you would get in your rowboat, and you would row, and you would sink a little bit, and you would bring Sommer Browning a toaster as a gift, and you would have so much fun.
Either Way I’m Celebrating is that much fun, and more. Part of that “more” is a potent dosage of grief and melancholy misunderstanding, but as these poems continually remind us, “It’s only a sin if no one laughs” (from “The Meat from the Dream the Heart Knows”). That Sommer Browning’s poems are sometimes disturbing and devastating makes the humor that is the glowing, optimistic spinal column of this book that much more sincere, and that much funnier. Indeed, these poems are very funny, acknowledging everything from DVR to Socrates, playing charades, floating away. For instance, in “Foaming Doberman,” Batfink, a cartoon from the 1960s that parodied the then-new Batman, parallels a crying axolotl, a bizarre-looking species of mole salamander, leading to a variety of associate emergencies, one of which is “little // girl swallows typewriter.” The poem ends with a wild attempt at resolution that is just as dangerous as it is hilarious: “Send the wood chipper ambulance. Send the / Charles Bernstein ambulance, call an ambulance.” Whether we’ll be bloody and shredded or taking a sponge bath in theory, we need help. Help with what? Lampooning, singing, careening, and having a little bit more fun than we think is safe. Wake up. This is serious, but not very, but, yes it is, kind of, well, yep. Hey, are you choking or laughing?
In “Notes About Art Pepper,” (Art Pepper was a brilliant, well-known saxophonist with a similarly well-known heroin addiction) Browning casually lifts the veil from things, and it’s going to be funny or it’s going to hurt, but, either way, it’s going to make music. The poem begins, “Every photo of the Parthenon without scaffolding is at least forty years old.” What such a fact suggests about perception, significance, and authenticity is a kind of thesis for what this book has to say about art and poetry. The poem continues:
Pain is followed by compassion is followed by laughter, and repeat. Sommer Browning knows this, and kindly, innovatively, helps us along.
Either Way I’m Celebrating also explores issues of spectacle, consumption, and desecration, particularly in “Vale Tudo,” a poem sequence that overlaps a failed attempt at ordering a pay-per-view boxing match, a description of the Walt Whitman Mall (an actual shopping mall in Long Island), and a botched visit to the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site. When asked in an interview in Mildred Pierce Zine what she thinks about American cultural consumption, Browning says, “I’m fucked in the head enough that these things haven’t dulled me into a glassy eyed torpor,” and that is certainly clear here. Throughout this poem episodes of humorous misunderstanding, “Walt Whitman, we are sorry we missed UFC: 62,” mix with statements of understated sorrow, “We make love. We watch more television.” At one point, lines from Leaves of Grass merge with a bank sign on the mall’s façade. Rarely has a questioning of moral and cultural values been so elegantly coded.
Laced, like all good addictive substances, with a little something extra, Sommer Browning’s comics appear throughout Either Way I’m Celebrating, and are indicative of the overall let’s-all-relax-and-have-fun-with-poetry-because-yeah-this-is-serious-but-what’s-more-serious-than-what-makes-us-laugh tone of the book. You’ll have to buy the book from Birds, LLC to have the awesome experience of seeing these simple, hugely intelligent little masterpieces in their completeness. But the awkward laughs aren’t limited to the comics or the poems. A quick glance at one of the title pages reveals an extended list of other works by Sommer Browning that includes, but is not limited to, “The Bowling with Brandon Shimoda (Greying Ghost, 2010),” “The House (Cannibal Books, 2009),” “Fifty-four drunken decisions (2008),” “Disturbed look on drugstore clerk’s face (2007),” and “Claire Preston’s black eye (1988).” If Either Way I’m Celebrating isn’t enough, track down a copy of I Wonder if Balzac Had a Good Pianist, a Flying Guillotine chapbook of Browning’s comics and one-liners.
Witty without being ironic, charming without being sentimental, funny without being cheap, Sommer Browning’s first book is an enormous, continually shifting, and generous act of pleasure. That these poems’ delight is scarred and a little wayward makes them all the more appealing. And of course, as the title suggests, this is a poet who, above all else, is optimistic, buoyant, and, in a fucked up, essential kind of way, hopeful. Indeed, “You thought the glitter was rain.” The effect is astounding.
Note: This review first appeared in Whiskey Island.
Nick Sturm is the author of the chapbook WHAT A TREMENDOUS TIME WE'RE HAVING! (iO Books, 2012), and his work has appeared in Aesthetix, Bookslut, Coldfront, HTMLGIANT, Typo, and elsewhere.