by Mark Halliday

In his sixth collection, Mark Halliday continues to seek ways of using the smart playfulness of such poets as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch to explore life’s emotional mysteries—both dire and hilarious—from the perpetual dissolving of our past to the perpetual frustration of our cravings for ego-triumph, for sublime connection with an

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In his sixth collection, Mark Halliday continues to seek ways of using the smart playfulness of such poets as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch to explore life’s emotional mysteries—both dire and hilarious—from the perpetual dissolving of our past to the perpetual frustration of our cravings for ego-triumph, for sublime connection with an erotically idealized Other, and for peace of spirit. Animated by belief in the possible truths to be reached in interpersonal speech, Halliday’s voice-driven poetry wants to find insight—or at least a stay against confusion—through personality without being trapped in personality. History will leave much of what we are on the threshing floor, Halliday notes, but in the meantime we do what we can; let posterity (if any!) say we rambled truly.

Forward Prizes for Poetry: Highly Commended for 'Classic Blunder' and 'Lois in the Sunny Tree'

Editorial Reviews

Tony Hoagland

“A totally original, quintessentially American poet. Mark Halliday’s work is forever in the pleasure section of my reading life. Sad, very funny, thoughtful, honest, lyrically and formally adventurous, Halliday’s voice is whimsical-seeming and crazy-quilt on the surface; in fact, his poems tremble and reel in the fierce abrasive currents of being alive.”
William H. Pritchard

“One of Mark Halliday’s poems in this new collection speaks of ‘postmodern pluralism,’ not a bad way to label these funny, knowing, sometimes even poignant, performances. In his scope and panache he reminds one of Whitman, but with less afflatus, more humor. Nicely resistant to solemn interpretation, Halliday’s muse keeps him on the run, saluting, often outrageously but always intelligently, a world that is almost too much for us.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Phoenix Poets Series
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5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.10(d)

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Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03870-4




    When in August 1920 I smiled for the camera
    from my perch on the limb of a sun-spangled tree,
    says Lois, long dead now but humorously seven years old then,
    with a giant ribbon in my hair, the sorrow of living in time
    was only very tiny and remote in some far corner of my mind

    and for me to know then, as I smiled for that camera
    in Michigan in the summer of 1920
    that you would peer thoughtfully and admiringly
    into my happy photographed eyes eighty-some years later
    would have been good for me only in a very tiny and remote way.


    They got old, they got old and died. But first—
    okay but first they composed plangent depictions
    of how much they lost and how much cared about losing.
    Meantime their hair got thin and more thin
    as their shoulders went slumpy. Okay but

    not before the photo albums got arranged by them,
    arranged with a niftiness, not just two or three
    but eighteen photo albums, yes eighteen eventually,
    eighteen albums proving the beauty of them (and not someone else),
    them and their relations and friends, incontrovertible

    playing croquet in that Bloomington yard,
    floating on those comic inflatables at Dow Lake,
    giggling at the Dairy Queen, waltzing at the wedding,
    building a Lego palace on the porch,
    holding the baby beside the rental truck,
    leaning on the Hemingway statue at Pamplona,
    discussing the eternity of art in that Sardinian restaurant.

    Yes! And so, quite frankly—at the end of the day—
    they got old and died okay sure but quite frankly
    how much does that matter in view of
    the eighteen photo albums, big ones
    thirteen inches by twelve inches each
    full of such undeniable beauty?


    Music poured from the big brown house

    It was sweet and dandy, sweet and dandy
    and a man sixty years old may have passed
    along the dark sidewalk wearing a sensible raincoat
    and a spelling-out of his thought would be

    Bright oblivious mediocrity of common animal-vigorous youth
    as he moved further into the chilly dark outside

    but wait just a second, sir,
    be careful of glibness, because I was there
    amidst the reggae, I the me in 1973
    as we tried to embrace the hour
    (because if we didn't do it, who would?)
    having already heard a rumor that I would become you
    so I danced hilarious with Maggie P. and Mary K.


    In this dream I fly above a thousand thousand suburban trees
    as the crow flies unconstrained by streets of time
    I do fly swoon-swooping weightlessly
    to my house of thirty-eight years ago
    where I should leave notes for my old friends
    but where is a pencil there must be a pencil in the kitchen
    down that hall of shadow light of ghosted air
    I float into the kitchen a bowl of cereal appears in my hand
    my lover of thirty-eight years ago appears beside me
    and leans her head on my shoulder weightlessly
    I should give her a note
    to remind her that we must have so much to remember
    so much to hang on to
    there must be a blank page in that book near her hand
    I should give her a note explaining how things have gone
    but she seems so quietly nostalgic there is nothing to do
    everything is over I have no pencil only this
    bowl of cereal which is so much heavier than it looks.


    Sunny day in Chatham and we've said we'll play tennis
    but we're all doing things. Annie is working on her bibliography.
    Carl needs to record in his notebook a long dream he had last night.
    At one point in the dream he said to these two Korean girls
    "I'm being chased by a crazy lady with a machine gun,
    if you can help me in any way I'll be very grateful."
    Carl in his dream is polite and respectful
    as if to keep chaos under superficial control.
    He disappears into a bedroom of the cottage.
    I add sugar to the coffee I should have drunk an hour ago.
    Peter notices the picture on the Morton Salt box
    and says when he was a kid he wore one of those slick yellow raincoats
    and Annie says he must have been so cute. Peter says
    oh you'd say that about any kid in a yellow raincoat.
    Peter puts Nashville Skyline on the stereo. I'm trying to read
    D. H. Lawrence on what a novel should and shouldn't be.
    Peter says "Girl From the North Country" might be
    Dylan's only song about his early life but I say there must be others,
    Peter thinks of "Something There Is about You" on Planet Waves
    and I think of that one about riding on a train going west
    though I forget the title. Carl reappears and lies down on the sofa
    with The Soft Machine by Burroughs. We're all like plants trying
    to locate the right kind of sunlight to grow in. I write this
    carefully on an envelope. Peter says "Tennis agenda?"
    and Annie says "Just two more citations
    and I'm ready to go." Peter finds his white socks. I'm nursing
    my precious tepid coffee. Everybody senses that I'll be the reason
    we don't get out the door soon. One side of Nashville Skyline is already over

    and Peter puts on an album by Kraftwerk. I roll my eyes
    and Peter grins at my ignorance of what is Euro-cool.
    He and Annie eat a few strawberries. Lawrence wants life.
    Carl sees a rabbit outside and shouts in his Star Trek voice
    "Captain, the Xyrilians have us surrounded!"
    I look for the can of tennis balls, someone already found it,
    suddenly everyone is outside at the car
    except me—life just happens absurdly full absurdly quick
    ripeness is you know what all right Peter stop honking
    away we go.


    You know what's so dumb about your abject devotion to the past?
    I mean this fetishy nursing of the traces of everything you ever did,
    like the photo of Laurinda wearing her buckskin fringe
    at that party in the field behind the Kingfisher Pub
    where you thought she was hinting you up to be her Sundance Kid
    or like those letters Margie Lou sent you on lavender paper
    ostensibly about John Le Carré but really about possible romance
    in Pittsburgh. What's so dumb is—oh my god—you so don't get it—

    when you cherish those two-dimensional traces of whatever was
    you are basically focusing your existence on something that does not exist.
    Because the past is nothing but shadows spilled over other shadows
    in your head

    and by the way that book you published seven years ago?
    That book is ancient. That book is practically as dead as Thomas Hardy.
    It's so funny how you can't admit this. That book,
    okay I know you think you poured your best self into it
    but even if that were true it would still be a gone self that got poured,
    a now hypothetical person who merely resembles from certain angles
    the person we see in those photos from a decade ago that you keep
    flipping through or slipping into your wallet, that person is essentially dead

    but I know you think when you stare at an old picture or old letter
    there's a certain way to sigh
    that breathes magic life back into the ancient traces
    and it's like you're the shaman of this cult, this wacky superstitious cult of
    Ah there I was, there we were

    so I have to hear about when you and Rosanna sang "Waterfall"
    at some club in Toronto or when you and Nancy sang "Tossin' and Turnin' "
    at that summer camp oh my god how pathetically quaint!
    So my suggestion to you is: Wake up and live. Like, today.
    And if you decide to do that, call me because frankly
    I think we need to talk about last night.


    Ran into Alyssa and Todd and Alyssa said "I like your shirt"
    and I laughed because it's obviously very old and she said
    "But it looks so soft and comfortable" and I agreed
    and Alyssa said "And that little heart is so sweet"
    referring to the red velvet heart sewn on the left shoulder
    so I said "There's a lot of history in that" and then had to explain
    that my first wife sewed the heart on this shirt
    for her boyfriend before me—and Alyssa said
    "Wow, that seems symbolic of something!" and Todd laughed
    and I said "It probably means that I refuse to let go of
    any trace of the past" and Alyssa said "Or maybe it means
    you refuse to be oppressed by the past" and I said
    "That sounds good" and Todd sort of half smiled and Alyssa said
    "You accept the past so it can't then turn around and bite you"
    and for a half second this idea sparkled alarmingly in the air
    and then we all smiled in order to let the scene end

    and Alyssa walked away arm in arm with her new husband
    to go on making the life that would be their past together.


    There is a mosaic. It makes the background
    on which amidst which can appear the figures
    upon which in which you have concentrated
    desire, fear, fascination, worry, love, regret.
    There is for you this mosaic
    assembled in bits every day this mosaic in which—
    through which—by which and maybe even for which
    you have gone on living; there had to be this context;

    for example in 1962 there was that melody
    "Stranger on the Shore"—
    played on clarinet by a man named Acker Bilk—

    I didn't care, it was just some tune that older people probably
    and it just showed up on the radio—in the kitchen or from car windows
    a dozen times—a hundred times?—in the years—I
        didn't care—
    it wasn't rock and roll!

    Yet it formed
    one bit in the mosaic—
    forgotten and then
    decades later revealing itself to be unforgettable:
    the melody of
    one version of
    eternal wistfulness in which
    you must slowly staringly wander until you die.

    For the chance to build a mosaic I am grateful
    to my parents and America and chaotic Earth
    and I send now this belated Thank You to Acker Bilk.


    Smooth plastic chair, thoughtless heavy air, my eyes closed,
    my father walked in, he had his bag of laundry.
    My laundry was in a machine already, some forty years prior to my death.
    Like me my father was alive, he was eighty-one. We were both
    sunburned and tired, this was after hours on the beach,
    after the picnic, after when the Honda got stuck in sand,
    this was after, then came the laundry; my father said
    "Did you get burned much?" I said "Not too bad" and
    he put his clothes in a machine. Small box of Tide.
    My eyes closed over The Burden of the Past by W. J. Bate
    and my eyes opened, hot room smell of soap and hot fabric,
    and my father's shirt was dark pink, like a heart I half thought
    but my eyes closed, after the hours in the sun and
    buying the stuff for sandwiches for everybody and
    making sure Nick and the girls didn't really hurt the seagulls
    and after Asa felt sick at lunch and we took him to his mother
    and after the humid tennis and so my eyes closed....
    Then they opened
    apparently for more living,

    I put my laundry in a dryer and my father was reading the New Republic,
    he was concentrating, with his reading glasses on, and caring
    about the truth, despite all the sun and all the sandwiches and
        tennis and
    and I loved him reading there in his dark pink shirt. But my head was
    gravitational to the floor, my chin to my neck, I tried to read
    The Burden of the Past and closed my eyes some forty years before my death
    unless it comes sooner, and a fly shifted from People magazine on a
    to my father's shoulder to a Certs wrapper on the floor
    and the fly was the word and....
    Then my clothes were dry
    and impressively hot and I held my face to a hot dry towel—

    I wanted to live—to live enough—to be living—but to live all day
    with the sunburn and the smell of Tide and the
        gravitation—was it possible?
    But my father was still reading. He still cared about the New Republic
    therefore with the normal courage of any son or any daughter
    I folded my laundry and carried it out to the Honda for more
    as my father went on reading for truth in his shirt dark pink like
        a heart.

    240 SNEAKERS

    This old guy sits in a car beside a road in Illinois
    near a five-way intersection at the edge of a town;
    there's a Dairy Queen a hundred yards away
    but it probably hasn't opened yet.
    The old man is a little confused about whether he is heading
    south or east but everything will eventually be clear.

    If his daughter were here she would be impatient
    but she is in Montgomery, Alabama, at her job
    and that is a clear fact.
    He sits in the car and looks down at his shoes—sneakers
    because he knows he's still a boy really
    though people don't see it; a boy trying to sneak quietly
    through the world without getting caught by
    whatever catches people....
    How many pairs of sneakers
    has he owned—he estimates one hundred and twenty pairs—
    how many of those two hundred and forty sneakers still exist?
    The oldest ones must be decayed, softened, obliterated
    in some landfill in Indiana—Indiana landfill—
    Indiana landfill

    —a few birds twitter
    in trees near his car—there was a rainstorm earlier
    and now the birds have to start their day again;
    there's a question he needs to ask—
    he watches the Dairy Queen carefully:
    he can walk softly to the ice cream window when it opens
    and if the person there seems impatient
    he can order one scoop, they might have peach ice cream,
    then he can ask about directions—sometimes the first answer
    isn't the one you need so you have to ask again—
    rushing just gets you to the wrong spot too soon;
    so the plan is to ask, and wait for an answer that makes some sense.


    Ted's father died, and in the next eighteen months
    Ted needed to write about his father and death

    and if you look at these writings sympathetically
    you see that they are intelligent and sensitive, in some respects,
    they make many delicate choices among words.

    But if you step back, several steps back,
    you see that basically what Ted says about his father's death
    is what you mostly could have predicted,
    including gratitude for the dad's patience
    when the boy had trouble learning some outdoorsy physical skill
    and regret for silences near the end
    when they could have discussed the family's way of life, or Shakespeare,

    but the Angel of Meaningfulness is not distracted or dismayed
    by such broad parameters of predictability,
    the A. of M. is interested in the most subtle shades of embodied spirit

    and the A. of M. says quietly "Good for you, Ted,
    your writing is worthy and in a related way so are you,
    and I like the way you walk as if amused by distance
    and the way you look at winter trees
    with a sense of their metaphorical dignity
    and the way you speak humorously to children."

    Unfortunately the A. of M. is so soft-spoken
    Ted is never totally sure he hears the heavenly voice
    except when it ventriloquizes through a human reader who says
    "I love you" or
    "I enjoyed the stuff about your dad, especially
    the detail about the sardines with mustard."


Excerpted from Thresherphobe by MARK HALLIDAY. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Mark Halliday is Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University. His previous books include Selfwolf and Jab, both published by the University of Chicago Press. He is also the author of a critical study of Wallace Stevens and many essays on contemporary poets.

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