David St. John
W.T. Pfefferle’s My Coolest Shirt is a wonderful collection, a conflation of privacies—one minute a sad country song, the next a hard postmodern stab, then a lovely, embracing memory of romance. The poet weaves together exquisite vignettes of seduction and loss so we may attend them individually or sequentially, like afternoon shadows observed from a passing car. The whole is an irresistible mix, a telling examination of the pleasures and perils of leaving yourself open to feeling. Pfefferle is acutely aware of the forms, at home with melancholy as well as bliss, adroit about human intimacy, careful in his selection of images to illustrate his vision. The poems are utterly modern, uncommonly clear, affectionate to a fault, and profoundly compassionate. The book just stuns.
My Coolest Shirt takes us on a wild ride, through California, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Mississippi, and beyond. Be ready to meet Glen Campbell, Barbara Eden, Napoleon, and Columbus. Take out the atlas, study the map, these poems advise, but be prepared for detours, for open fields and deserts, for the motor inns in border towns, for the chance to drive your Pontiac down Superstition Highway. “Let me see what I can salvage / from past scattered moments,” the speaker in the first poem says, and over and over again this book surprises and delights us with what can be salvaged, what can be saved, as we make our journey.
If your wishes include getting lost in poems, finding yourself in the tailings of some interstate, down by the pylons, smelling rain though no rain comes, this book should be yours. If love like a ballad repeats to you how to go wrong beautifully one more time, this book should be yours. If a big branch has showered you with leaves and twigs like rough magic, this book should be yours. I could call W.T. Pfefferle’s My Coolest Shirt a novel in verse, but it is something deeper—a story pared to its core, spots of time made of words that burden the heart and lift it with their hard-earned luck.
“Lucky for me, I believe in redemption,” the speaker of these poems says in a line that’s characteristically understated, complex, and hilarious. In poems of extraordinary tonal range, W.T. Pfefferle compresses large stories into tight, sharp-edged lyric spaces. In this compression, we find how our tragedies can unfold in increments, tragically small. And yet, in this dwelling on loss, a kind of dwelling-place is made—memory a place to return to, a sustenance, even a redemption.
For the three characters in My Coolest Shirt, love turns out to be ephemeral and inconstant. In the same way some folks lose track of their favorite shoes, the narrator, Netta, and Clare lose track of each other.
All three come to accept that they will drift, and in the out of sequence progression of the book, the rise and fall of their lives together slowly goes in and out of focus. They marry and remarry, and sometimes dance together in both the past and the present, or share the last dreamy memories of each other over distance and telephones.
In the closing poem the speaker recognizes that the journey for all of them has been about "leaving things behind, / and finding and losing, / and the lost."
But the time and distance happily renders the heartbreak and misery into a funny story to recall, a moment where one simply zigged when the other zagged.