Emily Schultz’s poems in Songs for the Dancing Chicken contain narrative elements, but they are rife with incongruous juxtapositions and unmotivated action. Her pieces feel like Edmund Russell diced with a skilled hand. There is often a coldness in her words, a coldness that resonates with the subtle poignancy of skillful absurdism and humor. There is also a sadness that pervades the works, casting itself over and permeating the realm of the enduring and endurable that Schultz conjures.
At times the works of Werner Herzog are a starting point for Schultz, this influence highlights the importance of the audience and complicates what role the reader of Songs should take. The complicated role of the reader is best exemplified in the section “Letters to Heartbreak” where she reifies that most quotidian anguish.
Here she reveals Heartbreak’s ill-kempt and cheap decadence assigning it “hair perfumed with smoke, like autumn’s brightest leaves gathered together, combusting into dust” or with “a pharmacy glow to [its] skin.” These descriptions themselves, illustrating both the temporary and permanent aspects of Heartbreak, offer the reader familiar but odd sensations.
The poems in this section are indicative of the general disconnections the reader finds throughout this body of work. The work inhabits the familiar but anachronistic trope of epistolary narration. These particular poems seem awkward in the present since the immediacy of most contemporary communications makes the loneliness of vast distance and time nearly void. For instance, the uncertainty of the misplaced or disappeared missive is rare in a world where students must text their friends to avoid the space and loneliness caused by the distance of being in separate rooms.
The horror of the distance Schultz conjures is made more severe by the fact this communication is not even direct. The speaker commands, “Please, forward” and informs the recipient that she is “sending this through mutual acquaintance.”
This approach to distance is further complicated by the second person address — the direction of this address leaves the reader either being the intended recipient, Heartbreak, who by the act of reading dominates and digests the text feeling the erotic tug. Or the direction leaves the reader one who has intercepted the text, a stranger who perhaps by chance encounters or perhaps by being the over-curious “mutual acquaintance” has diverted the letters from their appropriate recipient. The certain burning familiarity with loneliness through this interception represents a firmer and assured failure of the letter’s fullest intent. The reader either comes to symbolize the failure in space — this missive never reached dear Heartbreak — or the failure in time — since whether the message was received by the appropriate party or not the relevance of its original intent has been compromised by being out of date or discarded.
The readers’ act now is one of trespass of the stored or disposed.
The superstructure of possible identities in approaching the text creates a web that circumscribes the uncertainty and doubt necessary for this work because this work is one of space, albeit monumentally small space. But it is not the vastness of space that so troubles us, the incomprehensible distance that to gaze into draws us ever nearer the beginning of being since that distance can be safely parsed into fact and statistic.
However, the distance between us and the person snuggly sleeping next to us is often cruel and crushing. Few if any have been lost in the infinity surrounding us, but the faltering and often failing attempts to truly communicate leave us at best disoriented, at worst displaced from ourselves in the miniscule.
Even the original project is reliant on exploiting the minute expanse in the permutation of the space between Herzog’s films and the viewer. The alienation all of the pieces in Songs can perhaps best be viewed in light of scene which inspired the titular work in which “the chicken … was professionally trained to defy its natural abilities, learning to dance for 15 seconds rather than three …” The ability to defy doubt, its possibility and form, is how the absurd becomes poignant.