Touching a Universal Nerve: A Review of Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out by Grant Kittrell / by Peter LaBerge

BY MIKE GOOD

  Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out , by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

Let's Sit Down, Figure This Out, by Grant Kittrell (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017).

A bear is arrested by a policeman for walking too slowly, a favorite plaid shirt begins to bleed, and fictional places like The Gallimaufry Goat Farm collide with Jacksonville, Florida. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, Grant Kittrell’s debut poetry collection, leads its reader through unpredictable, surreal, and slapstick scenarios. Comprised of short prose poems, the collection often troubles the genre line between flash fiction and poetry. In much of his work, Kittrell reveals a fascination with idiom and strikes a conversational tone, showering his reader in speech, often imagined.

Tony Hoagland reflects on the potential and uses of idiom in poetry in an essay that first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 2014, writing, “The dictionary says that there are twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in common American use. Our speech is rife with idiom; we use it in the way that animals deploy various smells and glands—to tell others who we are, and whom we are with. Or, conversely, maybe we use it the way chameleons use color: to blend in.” With lines like “…I, laughing, long with the thought kept driving” in the short poem “Nana,” Kittrell seems to signal a Southern cadence. Aside from shading the collection in regionalism, Kittrell plays with idioms, setting up runways to take off into more surreal or abstract landscapes. In Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, the world is much like ours, but through language, possibilities beyond observed realities multiply.

Take, for instance, “Papa’s Crispies,” the fourth poem in the collection. The shared syllable in “pop” and “papa” creates onomatopoeia and, alongside “crispies,” immediately recalls the “Snap, Crackle, and Pop” mascots for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. The collocation of “snap,” “crackle,” and “pop” feels like an idiom deeply rooted within the cultural zeitgeist of the U.S.; these adverts first appeared in the 1920s. For me, the allusion evokes brief moments at the breakfast table with siblings before school. I imagine the white noise of a television flashing from another room alongside morning commotion. Thus, I feel as though I am already sitting down with the poet when “Papa’s Crispies” begins via a run-on line from the title, “[…] are still popping. But at the kitchen counter he’s getting soggy and she’s getting all soggy and they know it and sometimes they do not pop at each other like they used to.” “Soggy cereal” also arguably holds a place in our idiomatic word stock. Functionally, the phrase pulls the reader into the poem, piquing the imagination while Kittrell refreshes the image by applying “soggy” to the human body to suggest stagnancy. Meanwhile, the idiom “to pop off,” meaning to speak spontaneously and angrily at length, also lurks beneath. The implied violence becomes both playful and unsettling, and the popping continues. The speaker worries over their father, questioning, “I wonder what happens inside him when he finishes all those crispies, if the popping inside him has something to do with his keeping going.” This dreamy, childlike imagination coalesces at the ending in wonder and horror: “I take a mouthful, hold the crispies on my tongue and tilt my head back like I’m screaming. I’m not screaming, I’m just trying to understand.” In the end, the poem may have very little to do with cereal, but instead touches a universal nerve of isolation and concern. Idiom enriches many of these poems and invites its reader into the poet’s world.

As the collection’s title might imply, the act of understanding and reflecting on matters of the body and spirit are central to the whole, even if through a screwball lens. Often, in these reflections, humor explodes into violence, sadness, or longing. James Tate once wrote, according to a Paris Review interview with Charles Simic, “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny.” As the reader moves with the author between tragedy and comedy, one device Kittrell utilizes to navigate this challenge is dialogue. Perhaps, unlike lyric, conversations are often more able to veer in unexpected ways while remaining true to their form, and the use of dialogue seems to me uncommon in contemporary poetry.

“Would You Rather” is one such piece that incorporates dialogue and offers morbid entertainment. The poem plays with the comedic, party-game construction as the speaker converses with a character named Molly Jean. In this piece, no quotation marks or italics offset the speech, blurring what is described with what is said. Molly Jean asks, “Would you rather kill one cow or thirty chickens? I’d rather kill a cow, I said. Suddenly, out of nowhere a cow appeared.” If a more lyrical or metrical underpinning were expected, as compared to the more relaxed and loose nature of the prose poem, I might beg for more precision—for instance, is it necessary to preface a cow appearing from thin air with “Suddenly, out of nowhere…”? But conversation is rarely precise, and in the poem, the rhythm of the revelation feels right. The would-you-rather dilemma escalates as the speaker debates with Molly Jean about the logic or illogic of the world and, at her command, attempts to stab and kill the cow. The speaker describes in unbroken deadpan, “I noticed there was cotton hanging from the cow’s severed neck and I thought, this does not make sense at all.” At this moment, the conflict deflates as the cow transforms, yet the conversation proceeds. Molly Jean continues, “Would you rather be a woman for a year or win 10,000 dollars? I said, I’d rather be a woman, and she raised her eyebrows again.” In this moment, “Would You Rather” continues beyond its conclusion and leaves its reader with an image of perhaps scrutiny or incredulity.

Though the collection feels thin at just 53 pages, it is perhaps in-part due to its relative brevity that it also never appears beleaguered by the prose poem form. Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out manages to be playful but does not arrive without gravity. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein in her reflections on the prose poem in her essay “A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem,” Natasha Sajé writes, “…prose is about verbs and poetry is about nouns: ‘Poetry is doing nothing but refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.’ Prose gets somewhere, but poetry is wherever it is” (The Writer’s Chronicle, June 2012). If that is the case, poems in this collection are. They are catalogs of a reality told slant. They are sitting down and figuring themselves out one word at time and rarely reaching tidy conclusions. Readers will have the delight of sitting down with this unique collection as it takes risks and catapults them into different worlds.

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Mike Good’s recent writing can be found at or is forthcoming from december, Forklift, OH, Rattle, Salamander, Sugar House Review, The Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Ploughshares Blog, 32 Poems Blog, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. from Hollins University and helps edit the After Happy Hour Review. He lives in Pittsburgh and works as a grant writer. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com.