Poetry review – THE REAL WORLD: Charles Rammelkamp enjoys an original and unusual collection by Emma Winsor Wood
In a back-cover blurb the poet Kyle McCord describes Emma Winsor Wood’s The Real World as “an invitation to a schizophrenic internal monologue.” That invitation comes as a “business suggestion” in the first – and shortest – of the seven sequences that make up this intriguing collection, a poem called “Cold Open”:
We are currently looking to fill a vacancy To go after the emotional jugular So to speak We would be thrilled to see you joining our professional team
And then comes “The Killing,” organized as a television series with nine episodes and a series finale. The series features “two damaged detectives,” hostage, criminal, gun…”Cue haunting instrumental melody” and in the end, “the good guys get away / with murder and the bad guys / aren’t really so bad.”
Clearly, The Real World, which after all is also the name of a decades-long MTV reality television series (often credited with launching the reality TV genre), plays on the notion of scripted reality, which necessarily brings in the ideas of “free will,” “authenticity,” “purpose,” etc. As the historian Daniel J. Boorstin ironically wrote (one of the epigraphs to Wood’s collection), “Nothing is really real unless it happens on television.” Or, as Wood herself writes in “The Good Place,” “This is a true story. It was on the news.”
Season 2 of “Saturday Cartoons,” which like “The Killing” is organized into television-like segments, concludes:
I don’t want to live a life that is not a life says the animated existential animal everyone loves but doesn’t like, like life…
What is “reality”? What underlies it? Perhaps it is this nonstop internal reflection, a sort of solipsistic self-reflective observation, not unlike the Shepard-Risset glissando illusion, a cyclically repeated chromatic scale.
Indeed, the lines of “the internal monologue” often read like Taoist or Confucian aphorisms, bold statements of wisdom, the poet talking to herself. This is particularly true of the title poem. “The Real World” includes lines like:
It is possible to have too many positive emotions
It is actually a pathological condition
Many of us wind up confusing love with obsessive passion
You can’t be an artist if you can’t be alone
The poem ends with the thought:
In another life, I will have another life
The middle poem, “Commercial Break,” probably the most comic of the bunch, breaks it all down.
Go away! (We are busy building envy)
Indeed, so much of the “real world” is driven by the fear of missing out (FOMO, yeah?); it’s like a religion. Or, as Wood continues later on in “Commercial Break”:
Here we are, in the cradle of civilization The sign for a tunnel is a black hole The churches have neon crosses to show they’re open 24/7 Like 7-11
Or, as she gushes in an earlier fragment:
Everything looks so useful and picturesque on my phone I don’t know what to photograph next!
Everything becomes a commercial opportunity, slickly packaged; otherwise, it has no intrinsic value, no reality. Another of the collection’s epigraphs, from Don Draper, the protagonist of Mad Men, explains “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” And so, later in “Commercial Break,” Wood writes:
Somewhere between heritage and modernity, between earth and sky Time is an erratic hostess I’ve sent Shakespeare’s Juliet an email While standing inside her “house” Afterward, people waited in line to rub her 20th-century tit For luck in love
The concluding poem, “Westworld,” continues the onslaught of aphorisms but succinctly spells out the underlying realities, at least according to Wood. “The human machine,” she writes,
was built to seek and suffer – a loop that will play even when no one’s here to hear. Free will is seeing your face in the shadow of a passing cloud. Forced helplessness is both the human condition and a popular sexual fantasy…
And both the poem and the book conclude:
Look: the safe you’re forever plotting to steal is empty. Your whole life, a hideous fiction.
Above all, The Real World is FUNNY. Wood’s sense of irony is razor-sharp. The third of her three epigraphs comes from the poet, Chesey Minnis: There is no differentiation between life and a costume party…Indeed, Emma Winsor Wood’s verse wears lipstick and makeup and wears bizarre outfits! The concept and construction of this collection are brilliant, and some of her lines – “The sky is a very nosy librarian,” “Feelings are solid-gold toilet seats.” – land with the power of deadpan.