A review of Fat Chance by Kent MacCarter

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Fat Chance
Journalism Poems
By Kent MacCarter
Upswell Poetry
Paperback, 112 pages, $24.99, ISBN: 978-0-6455368-8-1

The writing in Kent MacCarter’s Fat Chance is so deadpan that it’s easy to miss just how humorous the work is. The writing progresses with a seemingly detached and wry horror that feels simultaneously anti-sentimental and shocking. We laugh at the absurdity, are ashamed of our laughter, and the shame itself becomes revelatory. The mingling of an unlikely, extraordinary outcome with ordinary beginnings forces our assumptions into a stark light. This doesn’t only happen semantically. It is also in the conjunction between different types of media, textual, rhythmic and visual – with source texts like newspaper clippings, medical case studies, and historical cast-off images woven into a story that melds chance, proximity, and banality into a cohesive poetics that is unsettling and oddly moving. 

Fat Chance is divided into four sections plus a single poem epilogue. The first section matches the title of the book as well as the second half of MacCarter’s 2014 book Sputnik’s Cousin, and a few poems from that book are reprinted in a revised form here. MacCarter calls these  “journalistic poems” which focus on real-life lucky escapes and some not so lucky incidents, including airline crash survivors, a person eaten by a snake, a chainsaw accident, water intoxication, and the dissolving of a man who breached a boardwalk and slipped into a geyser at Yellowstone National Park “enriched with sulphuric acid”.  These are the kinds of random and unlikely ‘fat chances’ that are sometimes sensationalised on television talk shows or in magazines, commodifying trauma. 

Because the pieces in “Fat Chance” are all true stories, it’s hard to resist Googling them to check the veracity and find out more about the characters and what has happened to them. Of course the whole notion of truth is not clear cut and the way in which these pieces are presented calls attention to those gaps and the way in which the stories are constructed, given the distance of time and space, which puts the reader is put in the uncomfortable position of voyeur to these slightly wacky stories that are as absurd as they are tragic. While the pieces feel random and as if they simply being presented as records of what happened, the way they are structured, linked, broken into stanzas and provided with seemingly unrelated denouements at the end of the pieces in equally dispassionate prose points to something broader. Human folly and sometimes vandalism is often implicated in the work. This is handled very subtly. The reader is left to make the connection but there is a tension between the incident and the structural environment in which it occurs, for example in a piece about the sole survivor of of the 2003 Sudanese Airways plane crash, Mohammad Al-Fateh Osman:

Mustafa Osman Ismail, then Foreign Affairs Minister of Sudan, claimed that the United States’ penalties imposed on Sudan in 1997 for alleged terrorist activity and sponsorship had created extensive goods shortages in Sudan, notably vital aircraft parts, fresh produce and crude oil. (“8 July 2003”)

The “Fat Chance” section begins with the death of the pig “Corndog” – the kind of banal story you might read in a regional newsletter:

For years, Corndog was a popular attraction at the McLeod County Fair for years and received special honours at the 2006 Minnesota State Fair for being the largest contenstant boar. Ever. He weighted only 520 kilograms then. (“18 July 2011”)

Corndog ends the section as well, like a conversation that picks up at random some time after the fact, familiar and unsettling. We have forgotten the pig by the time he returns but his presence is revived, as if he had been with us through the other sections even though there is no relationship between the pig and the airline crashes, nor is the story of the death of Corndog a story at all. Nevertheless, it feels both funny and weighty and it’s hard to put a finger on why.

The second section is called “Gossypiboma”, a technical term for a mass within the body left accidentally during a surgical procedure. The pieces in this section involve actual cited papers describing Retained Foreign Object (RFO) cases interspersed within each numbered section by letters to Santa. MacCarter has called this section memoir. The Santa letters begin in an ordinary way, unconnected to the medical sections by anything other than proximity, focusing on gratitude for common Christmas presents like an electric train set and shirt. The letters quickly progress into an ominous story with a hint of menace, layered, ‘bricolage’ style, with the RFO case study snippets. The section ends with a poem that appears to be a love letter written from the point of view of a lascivious RFO within the space of Santa’s lungs, a novel way of bringing the two parts together that is as sensual as it is gross:

I press my face up between your lungs and nudge an eye as close to your skin as I can. Your breastplate is sharp. But, when I do this, I can see gossamer sutures of sunlight. Of altitude. I can see shadows of the bunting festooning your velvet. (#5)

The third section, “California” harkens back to MacCarter’s 2018 book California Sweet, and contains nine poems each with the same structure – six couplets with short lines with one open space per couplet in what MacCarter calls ‘reverse ekphrasis’.  The source texts that are defined in the title may not exist, referencing old negatives, film stills, school photos, and cut-up concert discards. The work has a funky collage-style rhythm that remind me of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus”: “purple martins violin/a man maker”. These metaphors that don’t resolve into an image, but instead create their own internal resolution that has the syntax of sense while resisting sense-making: “ghost gas. Depend/calendars to Brick”.

“Case Study” is an extended prose piece. The verisimilitude of this work against the journalistic pieces is a lot of fun. I won’t spoil it with a quotation, but this piece, with its parallel logic, explores the way we are manipulated as consumers, which is one of the underlying themes of Fat Chance as a whole. MacCarter has an ear for business speak and utilises it perfectly for a satirical effect that makes this section openly funny, particularly if, like me, you get the references to Lincoln Logs, Cabbage Patch dolls, and the language of the case study.

The epilogue is one poem, structured in tercets, and is perhaps is the most disturbing piece in the book. This poem reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s “Let Us Describe”, exploring tragedy of August DeMont and his five year old daughter Marilyn, who both jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Like “Let Us Describe”, the poem uses truncation, repetition, structure, eyewitness accounts and side details such as the formula for the bridge’s colour International Orange – the poem’s title – and eyewitness accounts to engage with the event in a way that doesn’t belittle the horror.

Fat Chances is a clever and unusual collection. Many of the pieces manage to combine grim humour with a critique of modern consumerism that is deeply disturbing and yet oddly enjoyable to read. Fat Chance pivots around assumption and happenstance in a way that is hard to shake. Once you see the irony you can’t unseen it.