Swinging on a Star by David Trinidad

On Display for Eternity

by mica woods



Emily Dickinson wrote of fame often—as a bee with a sting (and a wing), as a flame, “A lightning in the Germ,” and among others, as a “fickle food”: “Whose crumbs the crows inspect […] Men eat of it and die.” Emily simultaneously laments fame’s allure while rebuking men and their fatal appetites for public life, but she does not tell us what kind of death comes for the fame-seekers: a physical, earthly end, or is it a social or familial demise? Or perhaps worse, a spiritual death? Here, David Trinidad’s rebellious new collection Swinging on a Star (Turtle Point Press, 2017) seems to continue this line of questioning.

Trinidad’s poems have always been muddy with the immediate, both the private and public present. Reading his work, it seems obvious that the personification of rumor, the goddess Fama, gives her name to the shadow-play interactions of experience and word-of-mouth, e.g. the famous life. Trinidad work is often devastatingly personal—short dramas of personal interactions (his Notes on a Past Life is the clearest example)yet populated with the minutiae of a culture obsessed with celebrity, capital, and fame. Trinidad prepares these pop moments and simple facts into an interrogation of a world forgotten and taken for granted. Sometimes this is a Zeitgeist, as in his “Mauve Ode,” in which he writes, “Love was more / romantic in the / 1960’s,” but more often it is for a life, a dear friend or a lost connection from the closeness the speakers feel with certain icons, as in “Raised by Karen Black”:

My only toy was her Golden Globe,
which someone had
dripped with pink candle wax.
I pretended the Blob
had devoured half the planet—
by morning the world
would be a ball of chewed
Bazooka bubble gum.

This follows in the footsteps of Trinidad’s 2013 Peyton Place: a haiku soap opera, where each episode yields for the poet a vast array of musings, some dark as an empty set, some light as a vanity—all deftly handled by one of the most attuned ears in contemporary poetry. While Peyton Place can feel like a modern Odyssey, with the poems/stanzas/episodes balancing a set plot with character development, revelation, social criticism, poetics, and humor, Swinging on a Star is a collection of fragments free to wander blithely, rudely, and radiantly amok within. Like Peyton Place, however, each moment glows in the hand of the poet. Each shines a light into the limits of language and understanding. Whether it is an Uber ride, waking from a dream, or “Phrases I’ve Ordered Stricken from Student Poems,” everything becomes fodder for the poem.

Despite these narrow side-paths and acute distractions, this collection never loses sight of its obsessions, our obsessions: the means to a lasting life, from fame, to language, to memory. To the screen.

Take Trinidad’s poem “Orange Blood,” where the faces of actors, of media, melt away in the night, but remain on display for eternity:


Come nightfall
even the junkies
in the Haight
& strippers in North Beach
will have a kind of innocence

Just extras on the set

As close to Utopia
as you could get
in 1973

& now only attainable
in a Dirty Harry movie

Trinidad’s weaving of low and high art, his coupling of fact to seemingly insignificant fact, is so seamless, that once we arrive at a truth (whatever that may be) with the speaker, it feels less like we’ve stumbled upon it, but rather that we’ve passed by this particular landmark truth so many times we can’t remember living without it, or what used to stand in its place.

Trinidad’s poetry is always deceptive in this way: from the pop subject matter to the sparse lyricism, Trinidad lulls readers into thinking they aren’t thinking critically at all. The poem simply seems to lay out a gorgeous scene, a delightful amusement, a pulpy, gripping narrative. Then, as in the long “Ode to Buddy Holly,” right at the moment the reader feels most relaxed by a common story and the poet’s Liszt-like metronomic rhythm, Trinidad opens the floodgates:

In apartment 4H,
a matter of days
the Winter Dance Party,
you recorded
your last songs—
just you,
your acoustic guitar,
and a tape recorder.
“Peggy Sue
Got Married”
was one of them;
studio overdubs
and additional
all but
drowned out
your guitar.

It’s so easy to miss: what begins like a brief history veers toward the parable, but Trinidad too tenderly attends to the life (of people, of objects, of the second) to deaden it with symbolism. This is the beautiful dissonance of Trinidad’s work: the details roll together like incidental notes, accents on a score cut short, but as they compound, the reader is confronted and cornered in the alleyway of the page with a human moment struggling to be more than its iconography.

Like Emily, Trinidad writes hundred-fold: not only a (relatively scathing) review of Buddy Holly’s last songs, a lament for a loved one lost, and rebuke of the studio’s production, but also a commentary on business eroding art, persona overshadowing the person, and fame outshining the substance. This is not just an ode to Buddy Holly, though it is first and foremost and forever so—this is ode to any artist whose work struggles against the debasing effects of a genre, a label, a category, their fame, the push for monetary success, and their pop paraphernalia: a pair of thick black glasses, an untimely death, a set of guitar picks on a grave.

Swinging on a Star, David Trinidad's 15th solo collection, is available now through Turtle Point Press.