Divine Residues: A review of Mean Numbers by Ian Ganassi

Reviewed by David Yih

Mean Numbers
by Author: Ian Ganassi
China Grove Press
ISBN-13: 978-1944106089, September 2016, 123pp, $21.95

At first glance, the poems in Ian Ganassi’s Mean Numbers are both fun and befuddling. The fun comes from unexpected juxtapositions, humorous conceits, incessant wordplay, and one of the poet’s favorite preoccupations: exposing the quirks of the English language, at every opportunity. The befuddlement comes of Ganassi’s delight in disrupting the ordinary pathways of thought. Contradiction and absurdity reign freely, and non sequiturs pop up out of the blue, each fetched further than the last, as if the poet were striving for the most unlikely next line ever to come out of left field. The effect is to loosen up the reader’s consciousness and allow her to gaze into an open-ended world of expansive possibilities. It’s a wild world, where sense and nonsense are on an equal footing, but she soon finds that the poet has left a trail of delectible crumbs to follow.

Ganassi’s alter ego is a visual artist specializing in collages that feature found objects, and he composes his poetry along much the same lines. The phrases and allusions that show up in the poems are just as likely to come from contemporary buzzwords as from the King James Bible, blues lyrics, nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, commercial jingles and brand names, lines from movies, proverbs, and other sayings, old and new.

These familiar odds and ends coax the reader in, to watch as Ganassi tinkers with them. Some he hollows out, down to their grammatical shells, before stuffing them with fresh contents. Others he truncates and splices into new contexts. Quotes from the likes of Epictetus, St. John Chrysostom, Erasmus, and Virginia Woolfe add another dimension. And a famous Medieval disputation even shows up, here conflated with an elementary principle of geometry:

The shortest distance between two pins is an angel.
Or when they are sprawling on a pin,
Wings fixed spread, like butterflies.

Like a wildflower sprouting from a crevice in the wall, Ganassi probes the cracks that have opened, over the years, in the edifice of English. He gravitates towards the peculiarities and inconsistencies of a language where nouns can be verbs (The snow is getting ready to snow) and adjectives can be adverbs (It’s mighty hot down here. Crazy cold). It’s as if he pours all the quirks and coincidences and broken rules of English into one big jar, screws on the lid, and shakes well. Like dice from a cup, they come scattering out in new configurations with fresh implications.

The poet’s predilection for milking the language’s ambiguities is especially prevalent in the humorous passages.

They dressed the wound in a tuxedo.
That is, the doctors had just gotten back
From a charity ball

In the hilarious poem Enough and Time, we find this riddle (polish joke?):

How much furniture polish does it take to screw in a dormitory?
Enough to keep the voyeurs apprised of the story.

Then there is:

Just let me slip on something more comfortable,
A banana peel for instance.

If that seems like a cheap gag, maybe it is. But it’s a gag perpetrated on us by our own language, which makes it fair game. In a similar vein, though lacking the slapstick element, Ganassi probes on:

He had relish in his beard and time on his hands.

He died with the word “smelter” on his lips.

In the following couplet, a whole-hearted embrace of the absurd adds to the fun.

Don’t tell me how to vacuum my cat,
I have enough instruction manuals to know that

Occasionally, a wry one-liner takes us unawares:

At Miss Twitterclark’s School of Fashion Movement we were instructed not to “feed the models.”

Even when not being humorous, Ganassi’s poems view life from unusual perspectives and often include ideas of extraordinary originality.

The bend in the road could only
Take so much speed before it broke.

These lines are my personal favorites:

Scraping the sky for what residues of God or gods
We can grub off it

In contrast with the inverted views of reality, we can also enjoy less radical but vividly beautiful images.

The dragonfly knits the landscape together
In the bright beams after the rain.

embling his raw materials into poetry, Ganassi spills cascades of echoing sounds and associations onto the page, like a jazz soloist filling the air with jubilant improvisations.

Plangent, pungent were the tomatoes, the love apples,
Skunk cabbage soup where the trees buckled
My shoe. Off by a toenail

He was or wasn’t real, was or wasn’t ruffled.
Muffled lanciform features, harebrained schemes
From the lanyard, ahoy there. Mr. Chips

The effect of this off-kilter world is to set the reader’s imagination free to roam among the associations the lines call up, with all their possible meanings. The shocking first line of Dessert suggests a crime scene with a man down: Drool pooled in the reason for the crowd. But couldn’t it really be an aroma-infused bakery, with eager customers lined up around the corner? Reading these poems is like taking a walk among the mirrors of a fun house – or a psychedelic trip, where even the banalities of everyday life reveal themselves for what they must have been all along: the glittering inside-out inhabitants of a billowing dreamworld.

Ganassi’s poems have an inviting conversational tone that welcomes and engages the reader. It’s as if a close friend were filling you in on some of his experiences over dinner (complete with interjections from the people at the next table). Occasional asides to the reader about what the poet has just put on the page increase this sense of intimacy. The poet never completely abandons readers to their own devices. Some of the poems even have identifiable subjects – meditation, a suicide, a bus trip to Seattle, scenes from the poet’s life. Still, because of the way they embrace ambiguity and encompass the varied interpretations that each reader brings, the poems wind up being about everything.

Ganassi mines the expressions and experiences of our times and treats the trivial and the momentous with even-handed equanimity, like a spiritual adept looking beyond the illusory sense-world of samsara to a place where logic is irrelevant and only awareness counts. Thus, the poems convey a sense of calm readiness in the face of life’s contradictions, a philosophical acceptance of things, whatever and however they are or aren’t.

Without a wife or with, happiness,
Unhappiness, what of it?

References to the grass that’s greener on the other side appear more than once in these poems, but the poet’s wry advice is that

To be outside looking in is better than being outside
Constantly struggling to get in and not succeeding.

Abandon the struggle. Look into this enchantingly original book. Readers with a taste for fun and fancy will easily find their way in to enjoy the delightful brain-tickling tour that Ganassi has created in Mean Numbers.