A Quarter Life by Tyler Pufpaff
Review by Rachel J Fenton
When Tyler Pufpaff asked if I would review his poetry chapbook, I agreed with no idea of what to expect from A Quarter Life other than the poet’s own disclaimer that their chapbook represents their “experience with mental illness”, a disclaimer that is repeated in the brief note to readers in the book’s opening pages. Tyler Pufpaff is a poet of few words, I thought. Had I opened this book in a bookshop I would have read the Bukowski quote on the following page and stopped there. But I had agreed to review Pufpaff’s poems, so I read on.
My reaction to Bukowski is less a criticism of his work than a comment on the overuse of Bukowski quotes to act as some sort of shorthand for struggle, particularly the struggles perceived by white males. As a working-class woman, I feel perturbed by pleas of struggle by privileged groups and view them as performative rather than real. But given the brevity of the chapbook form, I can appreciate Pufpaff’s choice of epigraph.
Any concerns I had about performativity are answered in ‘The Perfect Performance’, an eight-stanza poem that reads easily at a satisfying speed, much like the videogame referenced in it. The childish knee-jerks depicted are weighed against the wrongs of a woman – the mother? – in a push-pull of resentment and forgiveness.
The emotional complexity of the first poem is given relief by the list of ‘Moribund’, in which what is lost by leaving home is balanced against the new struggles gained from being “[t]ruly independent”, presenting a sort of poetic equation.
‘Delores’ loops back like sewing machine thread to catch up where the first poem left off, building on an uncomfortable association between violence and women and highlighting Pufpaff’s knack for editing. Care is evident in the placement of these poems.
‘Painting in the Garage’ gives two perspectives of the same scene, a mind-scape where the paint is a metaphor for the layering of struggles and the difficulty in seeing through a thickening surface of illness that culminates in a suicide attempt in ‘Banal Platitude’.
Interestingly, a sort of resurrection occurs in the following poem, titled like a journal simply with the date ‘June 18’, in which the poem’s speaker mourns a dead self who has been replaced by a self-destructive one.
‘Flash Forward’ hints at a happy ending making the impact of ‘Ghost Rider’ more shocking. Accountability is swerved around to get to ‘Forgiveness’. What should be clear to readers now is that they are not in their own head, “[u]nfocused and stuck”. Even the sentences are coming unstuck: “feeling less immersed now than I’ve ever been with anything that I’ve lost a cause.’
Pufpaff’s ability to disorientate the reader is matched by his skill at guiding them through each poem, offering only as much complexity as is required for them to empathise with his mental health struggles while expertly leading them through to the next poem. There is enough variety of form to reward the reader visually when the heavy subject-matter is unrelenting.
Where Pufpaff is strongest is in the poems that divide the poems on the page, such as ‘Ode to ceiling Fan’, giving readers a sense of split-thinking but also reasoning; however, the most emotionally satisfying poem is arguably the simplest. ‘Haircut’, in six repetitious stanzas, cuts to the heart of the loneliness of mental illness, the effect all the more poignant for its nursery rhyme allusion and such lines as, “I can cry if I pay for shampoo”.
Staring at the ceiling becomes a genre in these poems, in which Pufpaff makes the ceiling the stage for his masterclass. The tragedy is that the poet seems unable to exit. A sense of claustrophobia builds from the second half of A Quarter Life, but instead of escape there is an elegiac ending that feels more like a lift-off than a last page. The hope, then, is that a more optimistic collection will follow.
Had I stopped reading A Quarter Life at the Bukowski quote, I would have missed the opportunity to read the resiliency-in-progress evidenced by Pufpaff’s poems, the desire to succeed in the face of mental illness despite – or perhaps because of – its unrelenting presence in the poet’s mind. Yet wherever the poet’s thoughts take his poems, his poems deliver the reader safely to a more thoughtful place to consider mental-illness from.
A Quarter Life
Published by Tyler Pufpaff 2020