A review of My Stunt Double by Travis Denton

Reviewed by Nandini Bhattacharya 

My Stunt Double
by Travis Denton
C&R Press
March 15, 2019, Paperback, 92 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1936196906

So many of Travis Denton’s poems in My Stunt Double come wrapped in a tissue of otherworldly effulgence that it is hard to describe his poetry as anything but luminously elusive. There is much about light and the sky in the poems, and a great deal also about seeing that light, seeing what that light looks at, and shows, as in “the red dot in the sky/lit from the dead Lamps of the light of other days” (What Beauty Gives Us”); and “The sky opening, as if scored, and bled rainbow” (“Balloons”); and “lying under whatever star you can imagine” (Achilles Realizes There is No God)”; and “As it went dark, the sun wreathed in a purple bruise/We pulled on our helmets, looked out/Through a dot which let in a pin-sized ray” (“Penumbra”).

But there is also much darkness, and of a necessary kind. As much as there are creatures — cicadas, humans, spiders -— yearning up toward sun and light and day, there are violent deaths, vicious curses, and  peripatetic souls who wish to be lost so they can find themselves again in what they have lost. And repeat. Mourning vies with exultation at every crisp turn of phrase and every crunchy, unexpected line break. Some of that mourning is for the earth, for its creatures, for human folly and ignorance, for the apprehended apocalyptic end of days. Mourning is sometimes captured in references to popular music hits — Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash always blaring out of cars of boys, and fathers who don’t know what to do with, without or about the boys — and sometimes in the symphony of stars, skies, space and otherworldliness. 

There is also an undulating spectrum of scale running through the poetry, with things being tiny — cicadas, spiders -— always matched at the end by vast things like “canyons and big sky/ Its stars and happenings…” (“Buzzed, Fragile, Morning”). The series of poems about “Man,” are a case in point. This is “Man” as humanity, as well as “Man” as a specific individual in a specific situation: on a bench at a lake, in a bedroom, or in a girlfriend’s apartment hearing an over-dosed, near-dead roommate breathing precariously in the next room. Always beginning with the contingent and specific, these poems have a habit of expanding not only momentum but also scale as they continue. Though the “Man” is in different locales and situations, each poem is particularly compelling in that the protagonists find themselves surviving by an act of sacrifice. In the prose poem “Man, one day, went to see a Madam Somebody,” Man survives married suburban domesticity, in a manner, by drowning other memories and voices along with his cellphone at the bottom of a deep lake: “He thought of all the missed calls and messages buzzing into the dark, and mystery returned — the unseen made real as a clear window.” Sometimes, Man’s belief merges with God’s bewilderment, or God’s bewilderment becomes the fount of belief, as in “How he must have felt, that God,/Left at a crossroads by a friend/And the man understood, he believed” (“Man, one day, started believing”). When the silence of a bedroom at night with a dog barking somewhere outside becomes maddening, Man has fantasies of becoming heroic but only if “He’d pitch that shadow from the moving train of his bed, and be thought hero by all” (“Man once thought himself”). When “Man Sits on Bench Beside Lake,” “Fish spots crumb/ In middle distance, and mistaking opportunity/For hunger, again, slams the crust/To the roof of Fish’s mouth….” And in “Man one night sitting out with a drink,” intimacy lives right next to “a near-dead Russian in another room, just feet away/Curry and table skittering up the landing/And a glaze of sheet, like skin, between them.”

And what does one do when one becomes a book oneself, and history and apocalypse merely storied stories?: “But now his chest was papier-mache,/His back a canvas….his body/A folio, a Gutenberg…” (“Post Apocalypse”). Well, of course, one then recognizes the greatest “Author” of all things as also consumed whole by his creation, become “A long story caught in the crossed arms of a book” (“Post Apocalypse”). And the post-apocalyptic apprehension is also acutely caught in the poem “What the Satellite Saw,” where one might as well celebrate the day the world ends because “this is all we get.”

Denton’s imagery outlines and captures the enigma of matter turning into artifacts and articles of faith, and relationships and intimacies presaging, at every turn, violent or sublime salvations and recuperations. I would not call this style lyrical; or, if lyrical, it is musical at the same time as it tends toward those seventeenth-century metaphysical poets – John Donne, Andrew Marvell — who strove to reunite sensibilities for things human, earthly, divine and machinic. How else can one grasp “lava still warm as an inner thigh” (“My Stunt Double”)? 

Travis Denton is making poetry wherein the interiority, speech and planetary status of “Homo Erectus” slipping and almost falling on Vermont snow can’t be separated from “the exact equation of it all,/Shelved in the brain – knotted into double Helix….” when the falling body regains the equilibrium of “you, here, biped, recovered, upright” (“Homo Erectus”). This poetry — the otherworldly worldliness of this verse — looks out of rooms and homes full of light at panoramas of heroism projected on blank surfaces such as walls of neighboring buildings, from which “starry” directions and messages emanate: stay in the body, keep the body alive, while acknowledging and counting and recounting the billions of years over which the material of “upright, biped” has circulated, collided, connected, and reconnected with the body of earth, planetary existence, the cosmos, penchant and potential for chaos and catastrophe in common. To read Denton’s poetry is to be unable to lose sight of the translatability of matter into spirit, and vice versa, and to rejoice in the meaning.

Travis Denton is Associate Director of Poetry@TECH and has been McEver Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech. My Stunt Double is his third poetry collection, and his work has appeared in many other journals and magazines. He is also founding editor of Terminus Magazine. 

About the reviewer: Nandini Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and has called the United States her second continent for the last thirty years. Her first novel Love’s Garden was published in October 2020. Her work has been published or will be in Oyster River Pages, Sky Island Journal, the Saturday Evening Post Best Short Stories from the Great American Fiction Contest Anthology 2021, Funny Pearls, The Bombay Review, Meat for Tea: the Valley Review, Storyscape Journal, The Bangalore Review, PANK, and more. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and been accepted for residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and VONA, among others. Her awards include first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019 and 2020), a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019), and Honorable Mention for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Stories Contest, 2021. She’s currently working on Homeland Blues, her second novel, about love, caste, colorism and violent religious fundamentalism in India, and racism and xenophobia in post-Donald Trump America. She lives outside Houston and is a professor of English Literature.