Comatose by J.A. Tyler
(Patasola Press, February 2012)
A Scatter of Words, a Scramble
Reading J.A. Tyler’s Comatose is like being lost inside someone else’s head. Or maybe not like being lost but like being along for the ride, inhabiting the world built between the waking and sleeping mind, being on the brink or verge of everything. It is a narrative that takes place in the (usually distorted) real and the (sometimes nightmarish) imagined worlds at once. It’s not a summertime beach read. It’s kind of trippy. It’s one of those novel-length poetic narratives that are hard to categorize. But it’s a book that is worth reading (and rereading and rereading) as soon as possible because it will make you uncomfortable and uncertain in all the right ways.
Comatose tells the story of a narrator trapped in a coma who overhears the goings-on in the hospital around him, but who also recalls his painful life before the coma, and who builds around those memories a myth-like world that is captivating and frightening, expansive and entrapping, feels at once like the past, the present, and all possible futures. Tyler’s verse starts up and falls in and comes back, submerges and emerges into and out of the waves of memory, of dream, of sensory experience, and of myth.
I can’t remember her name. The name I
had for her is long lost. Yesterday I
remembered that the trees out of this
window have spines of tiny leaves and
peeling, blistery bark. Yesterday I
remembered that a tree like this is a
locust. Tomorrow I will believe a locust is
a bug. The day after tomorrow, when I
see a woman go up the stairs, I will think
that I have seen a man go that way too.
There are questions that don’t have
answers. There are questions that make
ghosts in trees. (35)
Tyler moves between voices familiar and unfamiliar, moves from the bold to the questioning, moves in and out of childhood and consciousness, moves continually so that it’s not a direct narrative to keep tabs on, but the rocking, lilting, sweeping world that comes into being. And, because the narrator is in a comatose state, that motion takes place imaginarily, in a world of memory and myth braided together, without the narrator moving bodily more than the blink of an eye or the twitch of a toe.
Tyler’s tone here wends just as the narrative does, from world to world, from that of third-person myth-making to familiar, childhood-recollecting first-person. This chameleonic narrative voice, despite Comatose‘s taking place almost solely within the head of the narrator, keeps the narrative writhing and spitting from page to page, following “The woman in this myth, she hears/it, the guttural splatter of clouds, and she/dreams of bears in her womb, of how she/is a forest,” with a sucker-punch on the very next page like, “I am a scatter of words. I am/a scramble. Moving my toes is supposed/to have meaning, but for me today, it is/nothing, because they only smile and say/in a manner of disbelief we see that you/are still here. All of the small things I do/on these days, they are strapped to me like/a bed.” (24) Yowzah.
If dreams and myth and memory come in waves in this narrative, then those physical details of the hospital are what float on the surface of Comatose, in the foreground of the action, but are only a fraction of the depth that the narrative contains. Comatose is the story of the brain’s busy whirring, populated with the footsteps of nurses and doctors or the IV drip but also with clawing bears and pine tree forests, windows, walls, and winding paths. It is completely inside and outside of the mind at once–a fever-dream that questions how one constructs reality.
We are not living. We are dwelling in
walls we built, a path worn by myths,
conversations going nowhere, lists of what
to do to keep us going. This cabin fraught
with ideas and no execution. This useless
room that takes my voice from out of my
What kept me reading Comatose was the imagery and the changing tone, yes, but was mostly that way in which I wanted to put together an idea of reality, to piece together which world (that of myth or dream, that of memory, that of overheard sensory detail or comatose stuck-ness) was real, which layer of the palimpsest was dominant, which layer of the ice cream cake was the chocolate crunch. And in the end? I’m still unsure. But that’s what I like the most about Tyler’s Comatose, is that it wears the reader down and it hurts, that the repeated images get mangled, any discernible timeline gets tangled, and that by the end you’re generally uncertain, maybe shaking, and left with the idea that you’re (everyone is) in the same existential boat as the narrator, trapped between worlds physical and mental, between now and then, between the concrete and the imagined, all of it somehow real and unreal at once.
Laura Brun is a poet who received her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She just completed her first year in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and she likes the way pigeons kind of waddle.