“the purple circuitry”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

31 of 100: Dirty Bomb by Mark Neely (2015, Oberlin College Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I am not entirely sure why, but one of my favorite similes will now forever be “blue as the roof of a Long John Silver’s” from the poem “Uncle Roger roars.” Maybe it’s because it dumps the whole idea of symbolic language on its head. Maybe it’s because our deep fried, Disney-fied, four-lane highwayed, strip-malled communities are ripe for poetry, and I love love love when that shit makes its way into the work.
  • I am equally enamored with this pair of lines: “Nothing’s changed since 1992, / and none of us give a damn if we live forever.” I’m not sure how old Mark Neely is, but I think we are close to the same age. Either way, as a Gen X-er, I concur. I don’t want to live forever. I just want to have a good time, but the world asks much more than that of us. It takes me back to when John Cougar still used “Mellencamp.” I still know all the words to “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses” but now *actually* understand their meaning: we were sold a future that was total BS, and here we are now, coping. Some lines: “I want to turn this garbage into art / to get the fuck off Facebook / and watch the burn barrel burn // to read the Russians and build recycled / sculptures in the park / and precede every tweet with fifteen drafts // I may have seen too many movies / I may have exaggerated certain things.” I, for one, should have been more skeptical. I should’ve trusted the grit and grime instead of seeing it as a town I could escape. Anyway… Neely’s poems make me think back to all that and how to integrate it into what passes for survival in 2020.
  • As someone who struggles with poem titles, I pay special attention to how other poets do it. In Dirty Bomb, Neely primarily uses the first line of each poem as its title, which, of course, really just avoids the whole exercise. In this way, poems get named by default, a la Emily Dickinson’s poems and Shakespeare’s sonnets. That said: as poets, there are lots of good reasons to make sure our opening lines don’t suck. Here’s another one!
  • I’ve been playing lots with punctuation in recent poems or, more specifically, when I can leave it out, and so I’m glad for Neely’s avoidance of punctuation in many of these poems. I’m finding the tool to work much like the line break: a way to add texture/meaning, a way to control pacing. Of course, it also serves to blur phrases together, for effect, as in this example from Dirty Bomb: “I’m white as hell / I burn my mail smoke / a jay and bomb the gig // eyeing the college girls / Opportunity / bumbling over a tiny patch of Mars // I don’t give two shits about / the legislature or the Lord above // my plan is all the gin in town.”
  • Neely taught at the low-res MFA where I got my degree, but I did not have the chance to study with him. And that’s a big bummer.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “where the glassy trees / reminded us of us– / wrapped brightly / in their misery.”
  • “… bowing their heads as if the burning // were an offering for all we have destroyed. // Blackened scraps drift in the sky and fall / like early aircraft– near-miracles dreamed up in the cold / basements of Ohio.”
  • “I mess with my phone / in my horrible / hybrid feeling smug”
  • “I spend all night online / searching for the perfect / video the silent bloom // of Little Boy over / Hiroshima the latest / dance // I’m looking for dream / homes in missile silos / horribly bored.”
  • “Pine trees shivering // like addicts on the mountain.”
  • “I want to show you // the last downed tree its roots / a reminder of the long // looted cables through which our / art once streamed”
  • “it didn’t matter if your plane was bound / for the domes of Heaven / or the steaming maw of Hell, / you’d be stopping in Atlanta first.”
  • “Some nights turned into / breakfast — the Blind Pig / never seemed to close, // and she never made it to Montana, as every night / she swore she would. When / her Pontiac skidded off // I-59 we crumpled / napkins in lowballs / and burned them on the bar, / saying nothing.”
  • “two weeks in Jersey every year / in 1982 / we got the new Atari and life was never any better.”
  • “no one needs / another photo of you drinking from a Solo cup”
  • “the purple circuitry / of your own translucent wrist”

What others have said:

  • from a mini-review in Prairie Schooner: “This book of poems explores life in 21st-century America, particularly the juxtaposition of intimate human relationships with the politics and violence of U.S. militarism, terrorism, and the threat of environmental apocalypse. … Angry, baffled, moon-drunk, and visionary, these poems chart the promise and the danger of America in fresh and memorable ways.”
  • Peter Campion on the book’s back cover: “If James Wright had grown up listening to R.E.M. and watching ‘Twin Peaks,’ he might have written the gorgeously disappointed and disturbingly glorious poems in Mark Neely’s Dirty Bomb.”
  • from Lou’s Views in the Indianapolis Business Journal: “In his new book, “Dirty Bomb” (Oberlin College Press), Ball State University professor Mark Neely looks, poetically, at the impact of terror—actually more like the impact of fear of terror and of terror talk from politicians and the news media—on our everyday lives.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Thank you so much for your kind words about the book! Reading your thoughts I see now these poems have a certain Gen-x perspective–equally nostalgic and cynical. And the whole reason I started using first lines as titles was a) because I was bad at titles, and b) to make sure I had a really good first line. Hope you’re doing well!

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