09
Mar
16

Outer Humor and Inner Seriousness: On Tom C. Hunley’s The State That Springfield Is In

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Tom C Hunley – The State That Sprinfield Is InIn Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt, at times, concerns himself with the lyric I. According to Burt, in the past, the lyric I represented a whole person, but in today’s contemporary American poetry, the lyric I (and maybe even the I in any contemporary poem) is not whole, it’s fragmented, it’s unwholly. In The State That Springfield Is In (Split Lip Press, 2016), Tom C. Hunley takes this splintered poetic I into a new arena. Hunley uses characters from one of the all-time great tv shows (especially animated tv shows), The Simpsons, as the constituent parts of his poetic I, his “inner life” (“Notes” 65). Additionally, he often illustrates the inner fragmented lives of The Simpsons characters he portrays, which is probably where the fragmented lyric I is most noticeable. Not only does Hunley become the manifestation of Springfield, but he makes allusions to literary texts and uses poetic forms that have also shaped the constituent parts of a contemporary poetic I who grew up watching The Simpsons like a religion, as many of us did and as Hunley surely did.

The State That Springfield Is In opens with “Edna Krabappel,” a poem that teaches the reader how to read the poems and what to expect: the poems move dialectically (between characters, within a character, or between a character and Hunley), and the poems will sometimes use direct quotes from The Simpsons. In “Edna Krabappel,” the poem acts as a call and response between Hunley speaking for the grade-school teacher Edna Krabappel and uses direct quotes from what Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode. Hunley, however, is not appropriating the quotes just to use them for content, but instead, he is showing how they are part of his internal makeup or to highlight internal conflicts within a character, or himself. The final two lines of the poem, “Can we trash the ribbons and teach self-confidence instead of self-esteem? / They are laughing at me not with me” (with Krabappel’s line in plain face and Bart’s in italics), make it clear that this collection, on one level, will be dealing with the issues of identity and perceived identity.

Another example is in the two-sectioned cento poem “Barney Gumble” (33), where Hunley uses lines Barney spoke in The Simpsons and juxtaposes them with “excerpts from AA’s Big Book and Rational Recovery’s Small Book” (67) to contrast the sobering “Barnard Gumble” in Alcoholics Anonymous with the Barney Gumble who is consistently drunk and a more-than-regular patron at Moe’s Tavern. The quotes are so seamlessly worked in, one can’t distinguish Barney’s quotes from the quotes from the alcoholic-recovery books, and one gets a better understanding of the conflicts Barney, and many alcoholics, deal with on a daily basis. Barney is a person who was once a good and sober student until he drank a beer that turned him into an alcoholic with issues of self-worth, and he deals with these issues daily, as the poem suggests.

Another example of the conflicted I appears in “Moe Szyslak” (17-18). In this poem, Moe the bartender is on the phone with the “Listen Lady,” who is Marge Simpson “in one of her many temporary jobs” (66). Moe, after being sidetracked about prank callers, claims he is looking for advice on how to give “advice / like a bartender ought to be doing.” Moe is trying to improve himself, and if you know Moe, there’s a lot of improvement that can be had, which we learn a little about in this poem. During this phone call, however, he keeps talking and we never hear from the Listen Lady. We hear Moe identify himself as “Moe, of Moe’s Tavern” (so he won’t be confused with a prank caller), state his reason for calling, but then he starts analyzing himself, “I’m always fightin’ / with myself, that’s my problem.” He even briefly finds a remedy, “Somehow you just gotta / surrender to your own complexities, like that poet / who said ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.” And so he keeps talking and analyzing, almost like a poet writing on the page jumping from association to association as he/she tries to better understand him-/herself while writing for an audience. This appears to be a cue for Hunley’s readers, too. Perhaps, Hunley is using the mask of Moe, some quotes from Moe, and a perfectly rendered voice of Moe to tell us about his own internal conflicts, such as “when you fight with yourself / you’re gonna lose, bet on it” or “some days you just don’t believe in nothin’,” which is also a conflict that arises with Reverend Lovejoy in the poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy.” But with Moe, his dialectical movement is within himself, despite talking on the phone with the Listen Lady (who is also a split persona, as he is really Marge). The reader’s expectations are subverted here because we expect a response from the Listen Lady, but it doesn’t come. Instead Moe battles with internal feelings and his outward appearance and actions by way of a monologue. He talks and listens to himself only to realize he will lose. As a result, one wonders what would happen if he let the Listen Lady enter the conversation, one wonders what would happen if he let someone into his life, one wonders if we (the reader) need another person in our life to have a conversation (a dialectic banter) in order to better understand ourselves. We also realize how fragmented Moe is, as he is more than just a bartender, he is also a person seeking love, a person who judges other people, a hero, a person of ridicule, a former boxer, as well as his Dutch, Italian, Arab, and Polish ancestries which are all “at war / inside my [Moe’s] bloodstream).” Indeed, he is large and contains multitudes, like Burt’s contemporary lyric I.

Not only does this poem have dialectic movement between Moe and the listener and between one’s inner and outer selves, but there’s also the movement between serious and humorous, as with many of the poems in this collection. I’ve just pointed out how serious this poem is, but it’s also hilarious. I laughed so many times through it, and I probably laughed even harder because Hunley rendered Moe so perfectly. This type of movement recalls Robert Frost who said about the poem, “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” I think most of these poems achieve the latter, even in the meta poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-46), which takes on the most serious and philosophic questions about whether or not there is a god or divine creator.

In “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-6), the Reverend is giving a sermon about god and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. Much like Moe’s phone call, Reverend Lovejoy is thinking out loud to a captured audience, his congregation, who, like the Listen Lady, do not respond. The poem opens with Reverend Lovejoy confronting the conflict of Matt Groening who created the “comic strip” Life in Hell but who also created The Simpsons. This divine creator created two universes, and Reverend Lovejoy is in one of them, a Reverend who is aware of his fictional existence but who also believes in a Christian god. That’s now two conflicts. There’s also the conflict that Groening “himself [is] an agnostic,” which is a paradox. This spirals into the Reverend saying he is “not sure I believe in myself either.” We have an existential poem on many levels with many gods. Not only is Reverend Lovejoy a fragmented lyric I, but the creator (god and Groening) is too. Not to mention “that Matt / Groening only penned four episodes of The Simpsons,” and “so it appears that Apu and his 700 million fellow Hindus / may be correct, friends, that there are many creators,” meaning there are many writers for The Simpsons as well as many gods. The existential confusion, the multiple lyric gods, becomes more confusing when we see that the character “Mr. Burns / proclaimed himself ‘The New God’,” and when we see that Lisa Simpson “created a tiny world whose inhabitants built / a graven image of her.” The fictional characters (who were created by Groening and multiple writers who were created by a god or gods) probably believe they were created by god, then become gods themselves, and Reverend Lovejoy is trying to sort through all of this using his knowledge of the self-contained world of Springfield that he lives in, while also being aware that he is fictional. In the end it conjures up what many of us have thought about gods and creation, including Plato and his allegory of the cave, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, as well as the movie The Matrix. And all of this seriousness is mixed in with laugh-out-loud humor.

By the end of The State That Springfield Is In, we can understand why Hunley used this cultural phenomenon of a tv show to write about his “own scarred, departed youth” (65) as we must wonder whether we watch The Simpsons or if The Simpsons watch us. Plus, does any Simpsons fan really know what state Springfield is in?

Springfield State Flag

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Hunley, Tom C. The State That Springfield Is In. Richmond, VA: Split Lip Press, 2016. Print.//


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