Travis Denton’s My Stunt Double

Travis Denton’s third poetry collection, My Stunt Double, is intricate and ambitious, an excellent fusion of narrative and lyric. Denton creates a world enriched with events that are both natural and surrealistic, cataloguing memories that present a full spectrum of personal experience. In this world, balloons suddenly fall from the sky, cicadas burst up from the ground, and lovers visit the moon. In this carefully constructed universe anything is possible—a road trip to the West or the apocalypse. My Stunt Double is a strong step forward for Denton; the poems are compressed and harmonized, full of precise language and sensory detail.

Denton’s great achievement as a poet is his willingness to inhabit surrealistic moments in a poem. In “Balloons,” the entire poem is a creative adventure centered on a day when balloons fall from the sky. This poem employs an intricate weaving of perspective as different individuals encounter the falling balloons—from a woman on the seventy-seventh floor of a skyscraper, to drinkers and shoppers, to a meter maid and a postman. However, the poem becomes luminous as it scales out:

Tokyo, Milwaukee, Calgary
And all points between reported
The sky opening, as if scored, and bled rainbow—
An unrelenting rainbow that swelled
And bellowed more rainbow.

The sharpness of detail increases as the poem zooms in on clowns who attempt to tie the balloons “into poodle with bone, / long sword or crown….” It is also discovered that the balloons contain messages and fortunes, but the most surprising moment is the lyrical ending. The balloons bring people together. The streets become “…full of goodwill, / Everyone past questioning the source, / but shaking hands…” in order “To repair a bygone rift, to make right, / To give thanks and to sing.” The ending, although highly utopian, is fitting for a collection like this which is dedicated to hopefulness and wonderment in a manufactured, suburbanized world.

The collection’s title poem “My Stunt Double,” is the landmark poem of the book because it is both imaginative and personal, succeeding at combining narrative with musical language. The poem begins with contrast. The stunt double “is running / Into a burning shotgun house in Cabbagetown. / Smoke licks his neck, cinders / Glow before him like possibility” while the speaker sits “desk-side, coffee mug ring / Coalescing on a stack of forms / That need signed….” However, the bulk of the poem is spent in a flashback:

When at sixteen I took a summer job
In a foundry that made bronze statues—
Eagle and Snake; Cowboy; Navajo with Eagle;
Navajo with Tear—I did it because the rest
Of my band worked there—bass player on patina,
Lead guitar on casting, and me sandblasting slurry
From the just-cooled forms…

Readers learn that this is a dangerous job for any human being, not just a teenage boy: “I wore those gloves because they said / The sandblast would strip my hand to bone / In under two seconds…,” but more importantly, this is where the irony of the poem surfaces. Although the stunt double performs impressive feats, they are ultimately flashy. He functions as a glamorous reflection of the speaker, but is unable to stand-in for moments of real pain: “My job was to blast / The plaster from the art, / while the smell of my own breath and sweat / Made me sick, balancing on two feet / Of shifting sand as tablesful of work / Stared me down.” The speaker quits the job and the band, but not the stunt double, who is more of a problem than a solution: “Hungover for six straight days, / Cigarette dangling from his lips— / Dodged a Plymouth and ran back / Into a life I still do not know.” The speaker’s vulnerable admission intensifies the ending moment of the poem, making this one of the most complex poems of the collection.

Denton’s use of form is another successful feature of My Stunt Double. “A Near Always, and Then” is a poem written in two parts that employs couplets to great effect. They serve as the foundation and assist in the enhancement of lyrical moments. Additionally, Denton makes wonderful use of surrealistic elements, giving inanimate objects the power to carry out actions:

Your walls will dissolve
Into corners of this house,

Your windows shudder under the weight of it all.
Your books will rewrite all their own endings,

Mosquitoes carry off your lawn chairs,
Your car pushes itself out of the drive.

The addressed “you” is a man, who, one night, wanders off from his home, which is located in a picture-perfect suburban environment. In this poem, Denton places people, animals, and objects on the same plane which gives the narrative a storybook feel:

There’s a woman who sleeps beside you,
Who will shake her head when the officers come,

Tell them that the wild horse that grazed
Inside you carried you off,

That, maybe, she saw your slippers tip-toe
Out of the house and you followed…

The point of focus is the “wild horse,” the creature possibly responsible for causing the man to wander off. More specifically, it is a “wild horse that grazed / Inside you.” It is the inner source of the man who does more than roam aimlessly:

He scans for a marker, not a beacon
Like a speck on a dark movie screen,

Or a crowd gathering,
But finds something like a meadow,

One blazed in orange blooms,
A sorrow of clouds all over it, and it rolls out

Like a jazz band, the sax steering them on,
Head, melody, solo, repeat, repeat.

The movement from “movie screen” to “meadow” to “a jazz band” is playful in the variation of images and their accompanying associations; the insertion of jazz is especially interesting here as a form rooted in improvisation. The speaker continues: “It’s almost like that, now that he’s lost, / Scaled off the map and found / This meadow that goes on.” The man is “lost” in nature, but in reality, “…he is there more fully / Than anywhere he’s ever been.”

Travis Denton flexes his poetic muscles in My Stunt Double through skillful narrative work, the use of literary devices, and in the richness of language and image. After reading this collection, the big question might be to ask where Denton, as a poet, can go from here. At the core, Denton is very much a romantic poet. He has given readers a lot to think about in terms of how nature and human emotions function in a society that is ultimately superficial. Going forward, it would be exciting to see poems that venture into spaces that deal with intimacy, like in “Love and the Moon” when the lover asks the speaker what it would be like if “I could touch / You like I want to… / …our lips could tease the softness of immortality / Out of the other.”

Originally published in The Literary Review, April 15, 2019