reviewed by Dan Magers
I published this review of the then-unpublished manuscript of Liner Notes by Andy Mister in Sink Review issue #5 (April 2010). I loved the excerpts that I heard Andy read in the mid-2000s, but it didn’t occur to me to seek out the whole thing until a visit with Anne Boyer in Kansas City. After hearing that she not only had read the manuscript, but also used parts of it as readings in her classes, I sought out Andy for Liner Notes. Bummed that he stopped writing in favor of pursuing visual arts, I secretly hoped that the review might result in someone seeking out the manuscript for publication. In any case, Liner Notes actually is getting published in October 2013 by Station Hill Press. We are republishing the original review from Sink Review #5.
— Dan Magers
There is certainly no shortage of excellent unpublished manuscripts, but few books, published or not, affected me last year quite like Andrew Mister's Liner Notes. Excerpts from the manuscript appeared with reasonable frequency in 2006 and 2007. This is not all that long ago, but with the proliferation of online poetry journals and print on demand, the amount of poetry that has been published since then can make even voluminous readers forgetful. Mister, furthermore, has chosen to pursue work in the visual arts in the last few years, making future publication of Liner Notes sadly a little less likely.
Even when Liner Notes was first published in journals, it was a step apart from most of the poetry it shared pages with. Indeed, another poet mentioned to me that she used excerpts as readings for students in a non-fiction writing class. But, at just under eleven-thousand words, it at first seems too short to be published as a stand-alone memoir. It is not deeply-researched or focused enough to be folded into the 331/3 series published by Continuum Books. I am going to go ahead and call it poetry, if only for the selfish reason that I do not want something so good to be ceded to another literary genre.
Liner Notes comprises about one-hundred-and-seventy five interrelated prose poems (or paragraphs if you like) that oscillate between clinical descriptions of rock-and-roll suicides and deaths:
On February 8, 1990, Del Shannon shot himself with a .22 caliber pistol. A year later, Shannon's wife filed a law suit against Eli Lilly & Co., the makers of Prozac, claiming the drug contributed to his suicide
and descriptions of the poet's life and observations, both past and present
Procession of Mission hipsters pedaling their track bikes into oblivion. They look half-dead and dynamite, pressed through pre-dawn dust. Each day is a mistake that you are tying around my neck.
Initially, this looks like a public/private dichotomy, but that would be a little too easy. Most, if not all, the musicians and entertainers in Liner Notes form a superstructural history of the poet's life, if not in the strictly chronological way that Rick Moody does in his story "Wilkie Fahnstock: The Boxed Set", but in a way that deeply associates personal memory with music:
In junior high a girl I had a crush on told me about a song that actually made you feel like you were on heroin when you listened to it—not that I knew anything about what heroin felt like. That evening I asked my father if he knew the name of this song, and he said, "Oh, 'Heroin' is okay, but you should really listen to 'Sister Ray'.
Liner Notes's prose is mostly unadorned and straightforward description about the author's life and these factual descriptions of musician deaths, the latter of which is suggestive of David Markson. One can gain enjoyment and a sense of the whole through excerpts, but the emotional impact of the work reveals itself only when read in its entirety, as sections take on a gradually escalating tension, which again makes it different from a lot of poetry. I have no problem calling this poetry, but these descriptions might suggest to some that Liner Notes might be better recognized as lyric essay. Mister himself seems to think he is writing poetry ("I've decided to stop hating the prose poem and give in to its charm, like a girl you just want to fuck so bad but don't want to talk to.").
The flow of personal memories coupled with the litany of musician deaths (entertainers like Ray Combs and the actor who played Auntie Em from The Wizard of Oz make appearances too) builds momentum while, at the same time, Mister tightens his focus on personal subjects. This simplicity of structure is matched by an emotional forthrightness. "I've been so depressed lately. I've never read that line in poem." The "I" of the poem is not obscured in any writerly fashion, and no mask or persona is constructed; there seems no reason not to equate the "I" of the poem with the poet himself.
Drugs are pervasive throughout. A description of Nick Drake's overdose takes on resonance when coupled with the poet's drug and alcohol use:
Every time I stand up, I get lightheaded and stumble. On my birthday I drink a vodka tonic and get so dizzy I can't stand. Later that night I drink a beer and feel fine. I'm relieved that I can start drinking again.
The descriptions of drug use, boredom, and loneliness give the work an emotionally scraped-out tone that only grows sadder when detailing the speaker's relationship with his father:
Once he found a picture of Ronee Blakley—a still from Nashville—in the garbage and gave it to me. Sometimes when I look at that picture, I wonder, what has he ever given me? Something he found in the trash. The picture's framed, he repainted it.
If this sounds depressing, that's because it is. Indeed at times the atmosphere can get oppressive, even angsty. Mister is more than aware of this:
I was at a party and this guy kept interrupting himself, saying, 'But me, me, me, it's all about me, anyway…' in an ironic, self-deprecating way. But he said it many times to different people so all night he really was talking only about himself.
Indeed, for all the forthrightness, Mister wrestles with the amount of disclosure throughout the book. "I could never write a memoir," he writes at the outset, and then later, "We don't want writers to tell us about their lives, we want them to show us something about our own. Maybe that's why I'm ashamed to tell you about my life." This conflict is coupled with a pervasive sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction with the speaker's own life. A third and more implied component arises from this—the mixture of fascination, aspiration, and fear the poet generates in detailing these episodes of suicide and death by entertainers, often directly or indirectly a result of drinking or drugs. This makes the stakes of Liner Notes high, and this sense only intensifies as the work comes to a climax that was building from page one.
"I never knew you could lie in a poem. Then I realized you couldn't," Mister writes. Because the poet believes this seriously and deeply, the sense of "putting down on the page" escapes pure reportage. For writers, occasionally, a storehouse of interests, fascinations, and desires builds up over the years, maybe meant to be doled out separately, and suddenly ripens to a point where everything spills out in a form that is both simple and mixed with a deceiving depth of emotion. Liner Notes feels like such a work, and it invites being read in one sitting. Excerpts do not do it justice, and hopefully the entire thing will find its way somehow into the hands of readers.