Scott Owens, Review of Michael Diebert’s “Life Outside the Set”
by Scott Owens
LIFE OUTSIDE THE SET
by Michael Diebert
Sweatshoppe Publications, 2013
These days, when most of what we see on our high-definition, 72-inch, plasma screens are called “reality shows,” we need poets like Michael Diebert to remind us of our true reality, of what life is like for the rest of us, of life “outside the set,” where the drama is perhaps less frequent, certainly less staged, and tragically longer, deeper, and farther reaching.
The cover image of Diebert’s debut collection of poetry, Life Outside the Set, is more reminiscent of sets from my childhood than of anything to be seen in the massive superstores today: maybe 13 inches, two knobs – one for uhf, one for vhf – and strange appendages called rabbit ears. What younger, contemporary viewers and readers might not realize is that as strange as such a contraption might seem to today’s digital, pixelated “set,” it was nevertheless the new norm, the brave new world for those of us growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, and we knew so much less about how to integrate that world into ours, or ourselves into it, than we were ever willing to let on.
The imagistic riprap — Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite, Chancellor, Watergate, Big Bird and Bob, the Ty-d-bol Man, the Fig Newton guy, Mr. Whipple, and Charlie’s Angels (“Nostalgia”) — of that time period, of the All in the Family generation in which families began to spend more time watching than doing, forms the foundation of these poems and creates the sense of “unknowing at-riskness” that informs them and that, looking back, we can see clearly defined the period. In “Ashtray, 1974,” for example, “Mom’s Parliament” burning down on the lip of an ashtray becomes a metaphor for the inhalation and habitualization of complacency, disconnectedness, impotence, and disenchantment:
. . . Dad
in his recliner, sawing logs.
Curtains drawn. In the news,
Nixon pardoned, war abandoned,
sluggishness, malaise. We breathe it,
inescapable, in – three awake,
one asleep. Mom takes
a long drag. Bad habit to begin,
she says, impossible to end.
But the poems don’t stay in the 70’s. They move forward, showing the reader how the psychology born of that experience has carried over to everything else. We see its consequences in “The Shops at Caesar’s Palace” with its emphasis on the artificiality of things:
Faux canal, faux gondola rowed by a faux gondolier,
faux wedding, faux vows vowed in a faux gazebo,
sugar rush of the insoluble placebo,
faux atoms floating in a faux atmosphere.
We see other consequences, alienation and uncertainty, in “Brandon in Accounting,” when the speaker reflects
The book would have us believe
we barrel through childhood with helmets on,
graduate, grow up, get hitched,
get burned in the south of France,
grill streaked meats on boat docks,
join clubs, commence nesting, drop off the radar.
And this, friends, is why leisure is a bitch.
Too much time to think about the knots
on my head. Too much time to allow
how alien I must seem . . . .
And we see the absence of conviction and substance in “Fixer-Upper” as the root of a failing relationship:
. . . She’d rather sing,
convert the porch to a veranda,
find other bright ways to pander
to would-be buyer-uppers, doubtless
dream of birth, children, faultless
to a fault – she, outgrowing you,
and the fault you’ve fallen into.
The inability to integrate what changed about our lives and families and country with Vietnam and Nixon and television has, of course, lead to a crisis of meaning that seems almost interminable now. These poems beautifully capture that malaise in forms and shadow forms – quatrains, sonnets, pantoums — that suggest, even while they seem to deny, the possibility of meaning, of understanding, and of truth. And ultimately they conclude on notes of hope, as we are “reclaimed by joyous // sons and husbands” (“Patient Poem”), we strive, seeing life as “a proving ground for our souls’ motors” (“Seniors”), and we survive with a stubborn faith in ourselves and each other – “We believe in everything” (“Epithalamion”).