This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
A neighbor’s argument; strange conversation in a late-night diner; lurking in coffee shops under the auspicious guise of “people watching.” A practice of community eavesdropping has always been a feature of the cultural landscape. And while American media has been saturated by a kind of escapism that seems to focus on how unlike us certain sudden celebrities are through lengthy chronicles of their misdeeds, inspiring an attitude that celebrates gratefulness that we aren’t that person, literary tradition has usually taken the opposite tactic – to focus on situations in which we see ourselves or can come to recognize a common behavioral ancestor, no matter how outrageous. Corwin Ericson’s Checked Out OK is another entry into the long-standing tradition of community exposure that creates a solidarity between readers through exploring incidents published largely in the Amherst Bulletin, the local newspaper of the Amherst and Hadley, Massachusetts area. Though many reviews of Ericson’s collection of oddball police blotter reports have focused on the humorous aspects of Checked Out OK it is certainly only a means to an end; while there are many moments of levity in the book, the oddity, gravity, and detail of the text contribute to the record of a community, in essence, talking to itself. As John Ashbery once noted in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1984, “very often people don’t listen to you when you speak to them. It’s only when you talk to yourself that they prick up their ears.” Leveraging this sense of community voyeurism, Ericson instills a feeling that everyone will, in their own way, “check out OK.”
When prompted to name peculiar neighbors or infamous local denizens, it’s a pretty sure bet that within seconds at least two names (or at least likenesses) come to mind. Reading Ericson’s curated lists of events, he summons reminders of local oddities through such incidents as
9:29 p.m. – a Mill Hollow Apartments woman told police that a neighbor was harassing her by sending radio waves into her apartment. Police said the man owned no device to harass the woman.
As with many poems, the details that aren’t on the page and the poet’s ability to inspire a line of inquiry into the circumstances of the “world” of the poem are key elements of an engaging piece. Instead of an evocative narrative, one that invites the reader to make suppositions on behalf of an established character, this episode elicits an exploration of something much deeper – Ericson encourages speculation on an extra-personal level; is this woman merely so lonely that she has the illusion that her neighbor wants to reach out to her, yet she is unable to reach back? Or, perhaps, she so prizes her isolation and solitude that at the slightest perceived intrusion, she reacts in a visceral way. Checked Out OK is a journal of those eccentricities and fears that we all have and how, for some, they manifest in public concern.
More and more, the work of found poetry seems to be that of discovering marginalized, uncanny, or unwilling voices with a focus on exposure. Though many previous reviews have harkened back to Jeff Griffin’s Lost and (and many conversations among found poets have centered around the text), Ericson’s text is a co-conspirator in the emergence of a new sense of purpose among those working in the medium. The text, sourced from reports submitted as a matter of professional diligence, bring forth situations that may have otherwise been hidden among the slippery and muddy domains of memory and anecdote. Though the participants in these exchanges may not have wanted to be part of the public record, their stories are now committed to the public lexicon as well through Ericson’s text. Because of this, Checked Out OK also falls into the same category as appropriative texts as Goldsmith’s faithful transcriptions of radio news and traffic reports. What, then, makes such work “poetic?”
If there is any question as to what qualifies Checked Out OK as a book of poetry, it is Ericson’s careful selection, arrangement, and pattern recognition that evokes the poetry of these moments, giving them form, which results in a dateless chronological order, unifying a disparate set of events under a common title. It provides a sense of serendipity and magic that unfolds linearly but without a sense of narrative; these incidents and their corresponding reports are fleeting moments focus on salvaging the voice of a speaker rather than focusing on the events themselves. Rarely does an individual entry run over 11 lines, encapsulating each report in a predictable, but comforting incident-resolution structure that may introduce a stunning, disturbing, or curious situation, only to end in a sense of being resolvable, knowable, or “OK,” though some endings aren’t necessarily reassuring such as the man who “parked a vehicle near a Pine Street home and made residents nervous [telling] police that he was just mapping the stars on his laptop computer.” Though unsettling (is the man telling the truth?), it reflects the makeup of our own communities: not everything is “good” and some things aren’t necessarily malicious. Sometimes what we see really is just
9:02 a.m. – a wet fox running across Main Street checked out OK.
But, overall, we are all a part of a community. And though there is more than one major feature to recommend Ericson’s Checked Out OK, the major success of it is the sense of interconnectivity that is the predominant atmosphere of the book.
Whether it is a report of “a fight after letting a man into the residence who promptly urinated on the floor” after the residents admit that “they didn’t know the man but told police they let him in because he was Irish” or reports of neighbors merely checking up on each other, the sense of action and reaction is palpable throughout. For anyone who has spent time in a small town or a closely-knit neighborhood, many of the tensions revealed throughout the text will feel familiar. The common bonds that create the networks around us, no matter if it is a perceived common interest or heritage, geographic location, or a merely a sense of mutual connection or preservation, we all must participate, taking into account the quirks of the membership that arises out of these associations.
No review of this book would be complete without a nod to Ericson’s wry sense of humor in selecting and grouping these reports in such a way that a reading of the book does not come off as one flat, stale through-line of rote procedural reports. A good deal of the humor that appears is less due to the actual event itself, but more focused on the occasion that would have prompted a report of it in the first place. For example, one wonders why someone in a smaller, outlying community would report “a large fox eating its prey on the Town Common” which, when responded to, yielded a find of “a healthy squirrel in the area” when police arrived. What does it mean to report that “police assisted people who were observing the salamanders crossing Henry Street”? One report simply reads “9:22 a.m. – A snapping turtle crawling across North East Street made if across safely.” The peculiarity of these entries lend an air of amusement and wonder to the book that might otherwise be lost among the gravity and oddity of the rest of the book, providing a significant sense of depth.
However, after 105 pages of a variety of reports that detail the shape of a community and its behaviors, Ericson’s Checked Out OK is a book detailing the social dynamics that exert pushes and pulls on development and an inclusive record of the voices that, in their own small way, inform the worldview of the community at large. Connections to strange situations are achieved by a kind of parallax that allows us to see some dimension of ourselves in both serious and spurious concern, reassured by the sense that, after all, everything has a way of checking out “OK.”