Mr. Either/Or: A Novel in Verse
by Aaron Poochigian
184 pages, Etruscan Press, October 2017
Review by Maryann Corbett
Novels in verse are not rare among contemporary books, though they are still unusual, even in the years since the runaway success of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate. But Aaron Poochigian’s Mr. Either/Or is a rare specimen of the genre. It’s a rollicking, whomping, careening adventure narrative that whips together a brew of sci-fi, fantasy, spy novel, and TV crime show—and does it in real verse, of the most formal kind.
In all his books thus far, Poochigian has been writing excellent, witty, moving, and thought-provoking formal verse. He’s done so in his original poetry in The Cosmic Purr and in his several works of translation of classical poetry from Greek and Latin. This latest book adds compelling narrative to the mix, and one of the many delights of Mr. Either/Or is discovering how well its formal-verse rhythms marry its spy-ops material.
The plot, at least as twisty as The Da Vinci Code and just as fast-moving, is set up by a framing tale that introduces a work of ancient Chinese art—a jade chest called the Dragon’s Claw— magically endowed with powers so dangerous that an assortment of uglies are after it. One of those assorted pursuers is the U.S. government, operating by means of the undercover protagonist of the story. We don’t learn his name; the story is told in the second person, a device that gives the reader a sort of enforced identification with the main character, who is always “you,” and who is introduced this way:
Washington Square, playground of NYU,
and you are in the grass, your shoes and socks
like sloughed snakeskin around you. Speed-chess players
at concrete tables cuss and slap their clocks
as cops with nothing nine-one-one to do
roust dormant derelics from greenhouse layers
of coats and trash. Nearby, a Ginko tree,
and under it a blonde in horn-rimmed glasses
eating up The Stranger by Camus.
Poochigian gets to work straight away demonstrating his inventiveness with simile, his cleverness at turning phrases like “nothing nine-one-one,” his fondness for sound devices like alliteration, and his skill at setting contemporary diction into ribbon-smooth pentameter. He plays change-up with his rhymes, using a non-scheme that chimes satisfyingly but never stales.
He also gets his plot going speedily. Within four pages our young-man-under-cover-as-NYU-student has been dispatched by his handlers to take possession of the mysterious Dragon’s Claw. By chapter 2, a woman wunderkind historian of Chinese art has joined the chase as foil (and eventual, essential love interest). By this time, we’ve also had a shootout, a chase scene, and a gang rumble. And the pace holds. We’ll eventually also get strange, nonhumanoid aliens, in robotic disguises—plotting to destroy humanity, of course.
In another sort of constant change-up, the verse techniques alternate in the book’s sections, pentameter first, then four-stress alliterative lines in the manner of Old English. The alliterative lines, printed in stepped half-lines, are surprisingly effective for the action scenes. Not since the battles in Beowulf has there been such a demonstration that the four-stress line is actually a great tool for adrenaline-driven fight or flight:
An Olympian lunge
and you land mashing
Slats of slanted
your velocity over
a ten-foot fence
and trash bags greet
your lengthwise splat.
Moving at the speed it does, though, the story has little space to round out characters. Its limited portraits seem to work precisely because of their limits. For example, here’s Li-ling, the art-historian-love-interest:
Monday, the Met Museum’s Asian wing,
and she is primping objects in their cases,
eying, aligning, looking deathly lean
beneath a charcoal blouse. Her pencil skirt,
back-slitted, liver, and below the knee,
her footwear loud of heel and squeaky-clean,
the whole ensemble labors to assert
I’m young, but you don’t want to mess with me.
We recognize this woman; we’ve seen her many times.
Tom Clancy novels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Doctor Who—elements of all these kinds of escape fiction figure in Mr. Either/Or, and they work just as satisfyingly in this book as they do in those stories. Mr. Either/Or never asks to be taken too seriously, and it’s always a page-turning pleasure, with some witty invention or some delight of sound in every other line. And while it turned out to be exactly long enough for my three-hour flight, it was tantalizing enough that I’ll read it again, if only to make sure I really followed all those twists of plot.
Maryann Corbett is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Street View, published by Able Muse Press. Her third book, Mid Evil, won the Richard Wilbur Award; she is also a past winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. Her poems, essays, reviews, and translations appear widely.