A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics By CAConrad (A Review by Diana Arterian)

Wave Books


Every single thing can now be highlighted as a possible WAY to a poem. It’s true to say the poem is there, it’s right there, it’s always there, and it’s waiting, actually waiting for us.”

 The bulk of the sizable A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is comprised of twenty-seven (soma)tic exercises, with titles such as “A Nude in a BUCKET” and written in prose, and poetry produced by CAConrad while completing these exercises. The book also includes an interview with Conrad by former lead vocalist/guitarist for Lapush, Thom Donovan, notes from (soma)tic poetry workshops, and some (soma)tic exercises by other poets – not to mention a fantastic acknowledgements page, and several blank pages labeled simply NOTES.

Though Conrad has been a force in the poetry world for several years, his winning the Gil Ott Book Award at Chax Press for Book of Frank in 2009, and its being republished by Wave Books with an afterword by Eileen Myles in 2010, has propelled him into the spotlight. Last year he was awarded the Pew Fellowship in the Arts – even organizations bestowing Guggenheim-amount awards have taken notice. Conrad has been writing (soma)tic exercises, at least publicly, since not long after his first publication, Deviant Propulsion, in 2006. Conrad explains the source of his subtitle as well as the purpose of his book in his introduction, “The Right to Manifest Manifesto.” The Greek-derived somatic means “of the body,” soma is from the Indo-Persian meaning “the divine.” Conrad writes, “The goal is to coalesce soma and somatic, while triangulating patterns of experience with the world around us.” In other words, to produce scenarios in which one disrupts her/his body in order to mingle with the divine or poetic, as well as engage in particular practices or experiences. The first (soma)tic, “ANOINT THYSELF,” is an excellent example. This exercise involves Conrad taking some dirt from Emily Dickinson’s property, meditating with it, not showering for a few days, rubbing the dirt all over his body before dressing, and noting his experiences. He sees psychic value in everything – all are potential channels to creative production.

Conrad is publicly out-spoken on his distaste for the conventional workshop and educator/student dynamic. A Beautiful may be an educational text, but it is one that is meant to provoke the poet to shake her/his inhibitions, to blur the boundary between self/body, the divine/poetic, and one’s environment. It echoes concepts we have seen in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, or Ginsberg, Dickinson, Notley, O’Hara – these may be the roots of Conrad’s work, but it is the braiding and manipulation of the roots that produces a work such as this.

 The title A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is lifted from one of the (soma)tic exercise titles. In this particular exercise, Conrad spends an afternoon in a large cardboard box, cutting a hole in it and inserting the tip of a baby bottle filled with soymilk to simulate a marsupial pouch. He later converts this into a glory hole (which Conrad decorates) for his boyfriend’s penis (which Conrad decorates). The playful is meshed with the dismal, as Conrad periodically gives himself over to such thoughts as his inevitable complicity in the deaths of innocents by merely paying his taxes, which subsequently fund the wars overseas. “HOW did I not kill myself with worry and guilt?” The answer appears to be in Conrad’s lively process and his poetry. In his introduction he writes, “The most vital ingredient to bringing sustainable, humane changes to our world is creativity. This can be enacted on a daily basis.”

The poetry itself in A Beautiful was not quite what I anticipated. As a diehard fan of Book of Frank I was expecting more of that particular brilliance. The poem series “GUESSING MY DEATH” was one of my immediate favorites, probably because it had the wonderful freakiness mixed with play that is much of Book of Frank. In the first iteration, Conrad writes of his wish to have his legs replaced with wooden pegs and cremate the amputated limbs:


spread my

own ashes is something

i love thinking about

and the cheerful

sound of my

peg legs on



For the most part there is a sparseness in the poems, with short lines and stanzas that wind across the page. It’s hard to fall in love with the poems after falling head-over-heels for Conrad’s (soma)tic exercises, which hum with an earnestness and urgency (“Take your notes POET, IT IS YOUR MOMENT to be totally aware, completely awake!”). Yet there is a beauty in the disjunction, and these poems are Conrad through and through. Overall there is a blending of the exultant and the sorrowful. In one poem Conrad writes,

my neighbor

killed himself where

my new neighbor

undresses every morning for

her shower

This moment captures the heart of Conrad’s work, and a lot of what propels A Beautiful – how the quotidian is surrounded by history, and often a painful one. But what makes Conrad unique (among many things) is his unwillingness to remain gloomy, and his absolute willingness to engage with his anger (“excuse me / i meant to / say fuck you”). As he states in his interview with Donovan in the book, “My religion is Poetry, not a religion of kindness and love but one of absolute permission. If Poetry doesn’t strip me naked in front of my enemies then nothing will.”