Popular Music   by Kelly Shirmann   Black Ocean , 160 pages, May 15, 2016

Popular Music

by Kelly Shirmann

Black Ocean, 160 pages, May 15, 2016


reviewed by dan atler

I keep having the urge to locate Kelly Schirman’s poems, in spite of or because they so thoroughly refuse to be located. I come from a Northern California not too different than Schirman’s, and I recognize it in Popular Music, her first book. This particular California is home to a culture, primarily white, that is loose, gentle, and uncommitted. Life here is lived as much in the imagination of popular songs as in an inhabited landscape. That I want to push back, and locate her poems in place or identity, is not a complaint. It’s part of their satisfaction that they are so adeptly non-committal. 

Schirman’s poems refuse location (or a commitment to it) by multiple strategies. They eschew titles. The pieces in verse are unpunctuated, with lines broken consistently at the phrase in a way that makes each float loosely, semi-autonomous. The prose employs an analogous method, each paragraph a restart, another try. In this thoroughgoing parataxis, line, paragraph, poem all blur into or merge with their adjacents. Hierarchy is abjured, and contradictory feelings and ideas are held in the same poetic space. These are not confessional poems—they only glance at narrative, rather hinging on images, feelings, ideas. But they do feel personal, vividly conveying an experience with a bewildered tenderness.

The book is broken into six sections, untitled like the poems, alternating prose with poetry. The first series of poems are medium length, the second are short, and the book closes with an extended poem of 11 pages. Their offhand, snapshot insights are ideally served by her method:


Oregon has cold beaches

Washington has rocky islands

California has those freeway ribbons

& the softest kind of thoughts

I thought is was impossible

to give up on a dream this slowly

Stevie Nicks makes me feel so unimportant

thought I can’t really imagine 

feeling anything else


Many of the book’s key concerns are on view here. In the casual travelogue, we feel the speaker’s motion, the refusal to be pinned down. Within this motion, a quick brushstroke paints the loss involved in growing up, having to “give up on a dream this slowly.” Against a backdrop of popular music which forms as much of a reference point as the landscape, the speaker feels diminished. 

The book’s underlying subject is the work of coming of age, of finding one’s post-college way in big cities with lousy prospects, a soundtrack of classic rock on repeat, trying to understand oneself and make or keep relationships with the tools available, especially art and art-making. Schirman is deft at getting the sound and feel of a young adult into the poems, employing several kinds of language. She can skillfully use a spare, sound-and image-rich language, as in “I want a job/ that leaks slowly into a lake,” or “When you have love/ you zip yourself inside it like a tent." This kind of poetic language jostles with two others. One is a naïve, teenage-esque register of banal adjectives and abstract nouns: poetic no-no words like “beautiful” or “illusions”, as in “I built big, beautiful structures in my mind." The other is a kind of technical register that seems pulled from textbooks or instruction manuals. Phrases like “infrastructure” or “the development/ of modern agricultural practices” give an interestingly awkward effect that feels right for someone who has spent recent years reading textbooks and writing papers. She also has a great ear for vernacular moments: 


I know you know

we need a new national anthem

Sometimes I feel like

all I do is look


Mixing together the sincere abstraction of a teenager, the bland jargon of a textbook, with image-rich and vernacular sounds, Schirman captures an unredacted, immediate sense of the language world of her kind of post-collegiate young adult. 

The prose sections contain the book’s more extended narratives, and varied, often poignant explorations of music as a space where one lives. These sections ground the verse, offering a counterpoint to and respite from the poems’ floaty blur. Section I is a series of prose meditations on music, popular music and “Art.” Section III recounts a stint working with a friend on a remote California mountain farm, where incessant playing of the rock documentary The Last Waltz provided some bulwark against a vacuum of purposelessness. Section V launches from a childhood memory of a Rolling Stones song into a meditation on the messages in popular music. The prose pieces accumulate a set of resonances around these themes, culminating in a nuanced portrayal of both surrender and resistance to the banal ideas that circulate in pop songs: “You can’t always get what you want,the World insists, and always will. / Let’s listen to something else,I say.”

Of the verse in the book, the extended poem that comprises Section VI comes the closest to locating itself. It moves between recollected trips to open spaces, and life in “Gigantic, angular cities,” with the refrain, “I am here.” These spaces are shared with a “you” who fluctuates between companion, self-address, and nation. The book’s central themes—relationships, art-making, consuming popular music, the struggle for integrity within the City and its economy—return as Schirman stretches for synthesis. “Music does not make/ the sound of machines any easier to hear/ when we wake up with our bodies entangled." Following a series of exhortations to find inner purpose, the “you” transforms again into “Country.” The tone becomes grand: “You will make me beautiful/ though you do not need me," as the poem imagines a future of true selfhood and transformative relationship. 

This section is Schirman’s effort to offer a vision of something truer, more hopeful than what she has been writing about. She cares too much to not do this. I’m not as convinced by the redemptive reach of this final poem, but I find that easy to forgive in a book which persists in caring about the world by writing it in a variety of modes. Finally, the most compelling for me are her brief poems, and the many moments in longer poems, that form a set of signposts to navigate a bewildering life:


We make a practice

of attempting to describe water

We photograph a mountain

but it never really turns out

When I learn something about myself

I pitch a small rock into a river

Only other people’s songs

feel weightless

& true


Characteristically, this poem evokes a sense of being small and futile. The poems in Popular Music investigate this deeply. With their paratactic absence of narrative motion, and their a-locality, each of them explores the same space, which is nowhere, sort of. But the quality of these poems leaves me with another feeling. Futility and dislocation are realized with a care and clarity that accomplishes a claim for art-making as an alternate “Country:” one where relationships are cherished, where meaning can persist.


Dan Alter's poems have lately been published  in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, Pank, and Zyzzyva among others. He lives with wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College. He can be found online at https://danalter.net/.