“Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” wrote Russian critic Victor Shklovsky. In order to prevent this, he asks artists “to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” For Shklovsky, defamiliarization is essential because “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.” Maybe this explains how Noah Falck’s debut collection, Snowmen Losing Weight, can be simultaneously so surreal and so deeply corporeal.
Falck’s poems return the world its strangeness. Even seemingly straightforward descriptions feel weirdly askew. For example, in the poem “Interval between Beating Pulse and Sunrise” Falck writes:
Lastly, the insects grind a kind of static into the night. Lastly, the hair on your back is shaping up to be another Massachusetts. A toy in a cereal box. You’ve lived to tell about it with clean hands. I am all of a sudden. Or the tongue in the mouth saying, the last time was a lake reflection, a windshield wiper held in place by ice. (44)
There’s a kind of significance created by simplicity in Snowmen. Instead of eliminating ambiguity, Falck’s laconic descriptions somehow make his poems more elliptical. Further, through Falck’s surreal reportage, he creates a kind of unity in tone that troubles the idea of significance. An example is “Inside the Inside Joke.” Falck begins the poem with these lines, “I keep seeing people/ who look exactly like you// and the clouds keep/ running into all the buildings.// I have to think for a minute/ or two” (32). In Falck’s poems, all events are made equal, so the significant and the quotidian collapse into each other, and such distinctions are proven imaginary. This can lead to a sense of arbitrariness, which is heightened by the “crossword” poems that punctuate Snowmen…. The poems, titled things like “5. Across” or “19. Down,” posit an America that is continually expanding out into space. For instance, in “13. Across” Falck writes:
The conversation ends with a sigh.
Enough is enough.
The emptiness of a white room
passes time like solitaire.
Nothing will ever be as it once was,
when we listened to music backwards
and dreamed of making love to the police.
Tonight, the television plugs the World Series—
the elevator is cluttered with cancer patient footprints
and on the fourth floor, grandpa is plugged with pins
on his deathbed. (36)
The evenness of Flack’s language delineates a country where everything is happening at once and simultaneity is a kind of meaning.
Also striking about Snowmen… are the poems that capture the choreography of our lives. For example, in “From a Desk” Falck writes, “Once upon/ a time in a crowded locker room twenty-/ two women waxed lips in unison” (4). These poems could almost be scenes in a musical. In “13. Down” Falck writes:
The night studied our bodies
with its callused hands.
We leaned like kitchen knives
and watched the waitress
two-step around decaffeinated beverages.
Between blinks there was a constant shift,
time kept killing itself in tiny circles. (7)
In these poems, serendipity is created through simultaneity. In “18. Down,” Falck writes:
The moon marks the rooftops with silver […]
Across town, a radio emits a mess
of static from a fire escape where a woman
takes off her coat like a superhero […]
There’s a black cat with scholarly eyes, parading,
and hiccups channeling from the New Moon Saloon,
where two friends swallow bourbon in unison,
oblivious to the fact that they are sleeping
with the same beautiful woman. (9)
The continual coincidence of the random in Snowmen… is what gives the book cohesion. There’s an omniscience to Snowmen…, but not in any metaphysical sense. These poems’ only transcendence is estrangement, the way they are able to show us our lives as a performance we’ve forgotten we’re in. This omniscient perspective doesn’t mean there’s no “I” in Snowmen… however. Someone has to be there to hold the camcorder, and this I is present as more than just a type of attention. In “The Last Time I Ate a Hamburger It Was Raining,” Falck writes:
The light of the day had given up and fallen behind
the tallest buildings I had ever seen—somewhere
between 24th & 35th, though it could have been between
Liberty & Church. Regardless, you were there with me […]
I rubbed my belly first before pulling your wet
body onto mine, the people around us were the fungal shapes
of a dream, they were the silhouettes of silhouettes
melting into the afternoon and I think I was in love. (11)
Falck is very much in these poems, both as the person seeing and the person seen.
The estrangement in Snowmen.. isn’t mutually exclusive with intimacy. “You” is the most common pronoun in book. Falck is not talking to the abstract reader; he is talking to you, and particularly affecting is the closeness he can create while keeping the reader a stranger. In “Staring Contest,” Falck writes:
In your eyes, a traffic light, a backyard of paperbacks, a Home Depot. In your eyes recycle bins fill with history books, a collection of lightening rods from 1989 […] In your eyes, marching bands. In your eyes the clapping of several simultaneous first kisses in the shade of a Mexican sitcom […] (51)
The need to address this “you” is the engine of Snowmen… If we can lose ourselves in familiarity, we can lose ourselves in strangeness too, and Falck’s speakers find ways of inhabiting what can be, at times, a profoundly alienating life. For example, in “In a Room Doubling as a Hallway,” Falck writes:
I whisper to you a pillow away
that the President is being taken care
of, and then our unscripted dreams
struggling, black hungry
failures of hope, unbuttoned episodes
with the architecture of blindfolded men […]
where the wind is a wingless insect muscling a serenade […]
where our old lovers marry,
breast-feed, and mow crooked lines behind white picket fences […] (23)
This intimacy is only underscored by the fact that each copy of Snowmen… is handmade and unfolds like a Jacob’s ladder, and this says something about the contract Snowmen… makes with its reader. Snowmen…, however, is also intimate in the other sense of the word as well. Falck’s poetry can be sensual, but manages to do so without feeling cloying or fetishistic. In “Cincinnati,” Falck writes:
Drink a bottle of Tequila in the dining room. Expand internally. She’ll leave lipstick on the scruffy portion of your check […] Undress her slowly in a room fumbling with public television light where the shadows crowd the curtains; carve a thick mutilated forest on the walls. When morning comes […] [l]et the songs happen. Let the sun slip across the room to paint her lips a water-color orange. (48)
Surrealism then, for Falck, becomes a way of approaching the world, a way of touching it again, like it was still new.
Noah Falck’s world is both the world I live in, and the world I wished I lived in. And maybe, that’s what’s most beautiful about the text, that it brings those two a little closer together while still recognizing the essential difference between them.