Funny Because It Isn’t: A Review of Chessy Normile’s, “Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party”
Normile, Chessy, Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020. 86 pages. $15.00
By: Megan Artlett
Chessy Normile’s debut collection of poetry is funny. We tend to laugh when something is violated, a social norm or expectation. We laugh in the face of ridicule and undermining, we laugh as a response when we stumble into the gap between expectation and reality. Normile’s comedy is less laugh out loud (though there is plenty of laughter), and more smirk-inducing as I recognize the unabashed truths she lays out in her poetry. Multiple theories of comedy exist: Aristotle’s superiority theory suggests that all humor comes from the misfortune of others while Freud’s relief theory claims laughter lets us relieve tension (think: the manic laughter in all America’s Funniest Home Videos clips when someone almost, but didn’t, get seriously hurt). Normile’s comedy is dark and unexpected, and it does all of these things. Her debut collection, split into five sections that jump and spiral around images of the self, nature, books, masculinity, birds, water, and everything in between, is linked by the self-aware voice flitting throughout its pages. In picking Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party to win the 2019 APR/Honickman prize, judge Li-Young Lee shows a deep understanding of how poetry and its mechanics offer us unexpected ways to work through the various traumas of living in the world.
Poetry isn’t supposed to be funny, right? It’s supposed to take itself seriously, stand on a podium, and share important messages about the human condition. But this, too, is what comedy does. In Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special Nanette, the comic explains that a successful joke requires a set up that creates tension in the room, then defusing that tension with a punchline that generates laughter. Because Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party relies on free verse, the line break is a crucial element in the book. We expect the line break to reinvigorate or reimagine an image, but Normile uses it as an additional pivot between tones so that not only is the image adjusted, but the voice that presents it adjusts too. “Think about the letter ‘e’,” she writes. “Think about standing naked / in a shower full of men you don’t know / a shy and holy space.” This continual adjustment of tone and expectation is the core of what drives the “funny” in the collection, it functions as the tension, and the unexpected line that follows becomes the punchline. Lines like “This caused in me a panic so acute I fainted. // Luckily I was in bed already” draw us through the book as we continually look for relief from the tension Normile creates along the way.
Normile’s work is unified by its voice: a wry, sad speaker whose self-awareness, curiosity about her place in the world, and sorrow opens a deeply powerful bond between the poet and reader. I want to be friends with someone who is so human, so splayed out on the page in all their weirdness and oddities, who admits to being sad in the shower despite such beautiful big and amber soap, who invites you into cafes, libraries, boat parties, swim holes, and the woods with them. Yes, let’s hang out. Yes, tell me how you see the world. The voice is so casual, so intimate that for a moment we forget the omens and terrible music threaded through. We are told in the first section of the book, “I ignore omens all the time.” On rereading, this moment becomes even more poignant. We are told again and again that there’s something to look out for between all the gold glitter and mythic eggs, but we’re too distracted by the poem’s quick turns and pivots, its movements from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to “cum sluts” to references to Keats. And then, there it is in the two line poem, “Feedback”: “We don’t get a lot of opportunities to give men feedback. / Personally, I hated being raped.” This, too, follows the path in Gadsby’s Nanette, the moment when the audience realizes what they are viewing or reading is far more than they initially signed up for. A wound has been opened here. There is no moving forward, in the book or in the comedy show, without everything that follows being seen in the light of that wound.
“Feedback” is the moment when Normile’s turns and diversions reveal themselves as a distraction from the core of the matter, the defining moment that informs the world view in this debut collection. Trauma and humor are inextricable for the speaker and, therefore, inextricable within the poems themselves. In this collection, humor becomes the ultimate coping mechanism in a world that has historically and contemporarily treated the trauma of sexual assault and harassment as a joke. The poem’s two lines leave little room for interpretation. It is exactly what it says: two end-stopped lines without image or allusion. In “Feedback”’s wake, Normile reminds us that the rape joke is never a joke, even when it is treated as such.
If it weren’t for sexual assault as such an important element of the book, would I still call it confessional? The term confessional comes with so much baggage and association, namely the inherent misogyny in a term applied more often to women’s writing and used as a way to dismiss women’s experiences as worthy of literary merit. Rather than a mode of writing, it is more helpful to consider the confessional as a tradition. In this way, when we evoke the term “confessional” it reminds us not to focus on the content, but the modality. In the work of a seminal confessional poet like Sylvia Plath, we see humor as a mode of delivery, too. In “Cut” when Plath writes: “What a thrill–/ My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone,” her humor is Aristotlean. We laugh at her misfortune. We laugh at the drollness with which she calls it a thrill. Normile understands a droll voice. In “Witness” she writes, “People are like, ha ha your poems are funny, and that’s a kind of a miracle. I’m grateful. It’s nice to share the joke of my existence with you.” Part of the sadness running through the poems is that this impulse is inescapable, it’s not an aspect of the speaker that is constructed or pushed on, it is the conclusion of being a person, in a body, in a world, in a constant state of morbid humor. It’s not like Normile doesn’t know that she’s hitting the same note of oddball jokester. As the book progresses, we become more closely attuned to the pivots Normile makes at the level of line, tone, and image. Her opening poem “Ever,” a contemplation on different types of time, surprises with its turn from books to bubonic plague to love letters, but by the time we reach a poem like “Transfer” at the end of the book, we are primed to expect oddness and, as such, when the poem opens with a graphic made of hashtags, a long looping line, and an emoticon, it makes sense. It’s not a secret that this is a book about the self. The speaker refers to herself as Chessy and regularly draws attention to herself and her biography. So, yes, Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party is confessional in the way that most contemporary poetry collections are confessional, the space between speaker and poet being so collapsed that the mask between the two feels almost transparent.
At the core of her poetics, Normile understands that to confess the deeply personal is both a fall from grace and an inoculation from the harm that others can do. If a poet declares her own intimate moments and secrets on the page, then she is in control of that narrative. Normile knows that to lay a poet’s mind out on the page is to put everything in the light. The speaker cries “at the grocery store,/ at my beige, wipeable desk, / in bed,” she asks if she’s writing the poem she needs to survive, she uses three question marks in a row, she writes in all-caps and includes a line that just says “)))))))))))))))))))))))”. With everything in the light, the speaker is in control of their own darknesses and their own questions. What harm can someone do with our secrets if we have already laid them out bare on the page in ink, when we have already admitted to “blue underwear burned bright red” and the absurd lenses we see the world through? With sexual assault at the core of the book (literally, as “Feedback” comes to us right in the middle of the work) and the violent implication present whenever there is a man, a mouth, or a body present on the page, Normile uses comedy as a form of protection for the self and the reader. It is not a laughing off of the experience or a diminishment, but an understanding that this is a vehicle through which the speaker survives and finds other joys in the world, post-assault.
Mostly, this is a book of reckoning. Normile herself writes, “My arms are pinned to my sides, but still / I am going to figure out how to hold you” and this seems to sum up how I feel about the book. It’s goofy and serious in equal measure. I’m not always sure where I’m standing and I’m not always sure where my next step is going to take me. Ultimately, it leaves me thinking: Aren’t we all weird? Don’t we all spend our days in our odd little parties of one? This book makes me want to lay in Barton Springs and think about all the ways poetry can take from other genres and forms to help us grapple with the world we live in and the lives we lead. Trauma, pain, and sadness don’t exist in a neatly delineated box, they co-exist with humor and joy; it makes sense that Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party is a book of everything all at once.
Chessy Normile is the author of Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party, selected by Li-Young Lee for the 2020 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. She received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she was awarded The Andrea K. Willison Poetry Prize, and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers, where she was awarded an Academy of American Poets University Prize. She lives in New York where she edits a zine series called Girl Blood Info.
Megan J. Arlett was born in the UK, grew up in Spain, and now lives in Texas where she is pursuing her PhD. The recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2019, Best New British and Irish Poets, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and Third Coast.