Bruce Covey, Change Machine
Noemi Press, 2014
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I’m just going to come right out and say it. My favorite poem in Bruce Covey’s new collection Change Machine is a one-liner, in both senses. Here is the entirety of “I’m a Bitty Cupcake”: “But if you fuck with me, I’m gonna kick your fuckin ass, you know what I’m sayin?” This poem makes me laugh out loud. It’s not often enough that humor is used in poetry. But it isn’t just the unexpected hilarity that combining a frosting-topped bit of wonderful with an f-bomb laced threat that makes this poem stand out; it’s also the unexpectedness of the single line. In a book this full of poems that bring in every manner of topic and spit them out in reconfigured pieces, where every line presents a new idea, where each page brings yet another surprise, it would seem unlikely to find something so completely different all the way on page 109. But Covey does it.
The sheer volume of poems that all look different on the page is just one of the things that makes Change Machine a compelling read. The collection begins with “Chunks of Or,” a 24-line free verse poem with no stanza breaks that plays on the words “or” and “ore”; and it moves through prose poems in blocks, prose poems in a series of single sentences, sonnets, numbered lists, poems of unrhymed couplets, of unrhymed quatrains, and the fantastic dialogue poem “A True Account of Talking to the Moon in Atlanta, GA.” The reader is constantly challenged to refocus and to face the poem as a stand-alone piece within the larger whole. Not that there isn’t a thread holding all of these poetic surprises together.
Change Machine is divided into two sections that echo the title and theme: “Tails” and “Heads.” The idea of a literal change machine, a machine that takes in whole dollars and spits out coins, is present in multiple representations of the idea of currency. “Currency is nickels & dimes & quarters” (“Chunks of Or”); “Change for a 5, a monster caffeine or cherry soda / Hmm I’d rather have the fruit, chocolate” (“Local Box Score”); “I wrote some lines about metal but lost them / Roughly equivalent to losing a half dollar / Or a dollar coin -- there have been so many different versions” (“It Might Take a Long Time to Partition Googolplex”). This idea is furthered in the concepts of metals becoming currency through physical change, human appropriation of metals through the use of machines, human use of metals as metaphor and symbol, and equivalencies. “Is being worth one’s weight in gold something that one earns? [...] Gold’s atomic mass is roughly 197. The 110 lb. Olympic Barbell Weight Set from Gold’s / Gym costs $104.00 at Walmart, where customers have rated it with four gold stars” (“Earn/Steal”). Language itself becomes a machine which effects change through manipulation of raw materials, of words.
And it is this that is evident throughout this collection: Bruce Covey is in love with language. He is fascinated not only by words themselves, but also by what those words can do when combined in unexpected ways, when the words undergo change. What happens when Covey juxtaposes a list poem with the literary canon? “29 Epiphanies” happens. One of my favorites is number 8: “If someone suggests you sell your children as food for the rich, he’s only kidding.” What happens when Covey butts a deep knowledge of metals up against his experiences with death? “Gilded Elegies” happens. “Rather soft and malleable, copper is a ductile metal, with very high thermal and electrical / conductivity. // An hour before class I received a slip of paper in my departmental mailbox informing me / that one of my students was dead of a suicide, a shotgun blast to his face.” The elegies are gilded, but not in the sense that they are shined up and made pretty. In fact, they are presented plainly. The elegies are gilded in that they are physically surrounded by descriptions of different metals on the page, yet another surprise for the reader.
The poems in Bruce Covey’s Change Machine challenge the reader. They ask us to change our perspectives, our methods of thinking, often with a lovely sense of humor. Expect nothing less from each and every page than a trash-talking cupcake or epiphany number 21: “It sucks to have a big red A.”
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Gabrielle Freeman blogs about the use of humor in Covey’s work: http://whythewritingworks.com/2014/09/13/jab-cross-uppercut-humor-in-bruce-coveys-poetry/
Gabrielle Freeman's poetry has been published in many journals including Beecher’s Magazine, Chagrin River Review, The Emerson Review, Gabby, Minetta Review, and Shenandoah. She earned her MFA in poetry through Converse College, and she teaches at East Carolina University. Gabrielle lives with her family in Eastern North Carolina where she blogs about writing and all things random at www.ladyrandom.com.