It’s easy to forget that prior to his career as The Exile’s book critic and his writing as the War Nerd, John Dolan was a poet. Not a very popular one either; as he lamented in a NSFWCORP article last year, he never could “get anybody to read the nice, simple gory stories I told with linebreaks because they think there must be a hidden subject, a secret code.” People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes is the closest thing Dolan has to a widely known poetry book (mainly because it’s the most reasonably priced book of his on Amazon) and worth checking out even if you aren’t ordinarily a fan of verse.
People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes is poetry for people who hate poetry.
The book hits you with Dolan’s trademark vitriol and bite literally from the cover; the blurb on the back may be one of the best in publishing history:
John Dolan taught in the English Department at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, from 1993 to 2001. Hired to teach basic reading and writing techniques to 900 snarling first-year med students per year, he survived eight years in the nightmarish job, finally clawing his way out of it and reaching a comfortable position in which he would teach only poetry workshops and advanced writing for the rest of his career. At this point, the fatally bad sense of timing which has determined his course in life led him to resign from his tenured job, claiming that he could not bear the sound of certain of his colleagues’ voices at the Wednesday staff meetings any longer. He left New Zealand to become a scurrilous journalist at the eXile, a Moscow expat paper which holds the current record for ‘most death threats against staff.’ As of this moment, Dolan is the only eXile staffer who has not been physically attacked, although, as he likes to boast, he was the subject of various voodoo death cults among the Dunedin med students, some of whom even produced an unflattering caricature of Dr. Dolan with the words ‘BLAH BLAH BLAH’ beneath it. Cowardice and vindictive paranoia combine to form Dolan’s crude blood-fingerprint poetic style.
Ouch. Most self-abasing writers at least wait until the reader has opened the book before they start bashing themselves.
Landscapes comprises nearly forty poems in a variety of styles, all of which feature Dolan’s characteristic black humor. He lambastes hippies in his anti-tree-hugging anthem “Let’s Clarify About the Trees,” retells the painful story of one of his high school crushes in “The High Elves of Pleasant Hill High School” (anyone who’s read Pleasant Hell will be familiar with this part of Dolan’s life), and rhapsodizes Mark David Chapman in “The Death of John Lennon as Miracle”:
Is Mark David Chapman
(the dirty little coward that shot Mister
Lennon) a saint?
He gets my vote for heaven,
Shot him the required three times:
3 miracles or as the Aztecs said,
‘Aha! These white men can be killed!’
Most of the subject matter of Landscape’s poems comprise Dolan’s usual fascinations: Irish nationalism, the Mongols, teenage awkwardness, and Californian suburbia. He’s at his best in telling brief, creepy stories of fucked up individuals, such as the half-retarded protagonist of “How I Killed the Mouse”:
And it was in the oven and it couldn’t get out and it went SKRICH SKRICH SKRICH and it didn’t work and it couldn’t get out because the oven the oven the oven isn’t all wood it’s like it’s hard all white and hard like on a bathtub instead of like wood and you can’t chew it so it was the mouse was going SKRICH SKRICH SKRICH all faster and it couldn’t get out and the oven was got all hotter and hotter and hotter
And you know what?
IT DIDN’T KILL IT!
Dolan’s poetry excels where virtually all modern poetry for one simple reason: it’s austere. There’s no secrets, no pretension, no deeper meaning; he just tells funny, frightening stories that just happen to rhyme and have meter. His verse follows in the tradition of Wallace Stevens, who lampooned the arrogance of Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams and the other hack poets of the day by writing about nothing.
My God, poetry that isn’t weighed down with idiotic, shopworn, obnoxious themes? It’s a miracle!
My biggest critique of Landscapes is that Dolan’s clipped, abbreviated style only really works with short poems. Any time he goes beyond two pages, such as in the paean to the Mongols that is “The Problem is How to Thank,” his verse style comes screeching to a halt. Additionally, the book itself is rather thin; at only 64 pages, I was left wanting more.
Aside from that, however, People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes is a fantastic poetry collection. If you’re a fan of John Dolan (or even if you aren’t), it’s worth a read.
Click here to buy People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes.
Read Next: Pleasant Hell by John Dolan