Literary Chicago


Down-to-Earth Verse

October 06, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Book Reviews, Poetry

a review of James Payne’s poetry collection, Austerity Pleasures

Aw, man! Poetry?! LAME.

Just kidding!

But seriously, poetry kinda sucks.

James Payne’s collection of poems, Austerity Pleasures, does not suck though. Before you start screaming, “BUT MASON THAT’S CRAZY,” just hear me out. And please, for the love of God, keep your finger away from the caps lock.

Payne’s poems have all the intellect many similar poetry and chapbook collections contain, the kind of intellect you find in books that may as well come with a required reading list of boring, old, dead dudes, but with more wit and honesty, and therefore, less douche-baggery. It’s really nice to see something so well put together that, at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And Austerity Pleasures, by the way, is in fact well put together. Literally. A well constructed, little chapbook that’s nice to hold in your hands.

The poems inside encompass that mid-twenties angst that all of us youths are getting sick of. They’re self aware enough to entertain you though, to pull you in, instead of doing the opposite. The book combines all those worries – petty and legitimate – that freeze your mind and turn you into an insomniac. “Poem For Sitting in Panera,”  for example, tackles the future. Throwing worries like “where will I be in fifteen years” into a loudspeaker that exaggerates them comically while, simultaneously, keeping that keen sense of anxiety they initially cause intact. It’s a nice duality.

“Our Rattails” does the opposite, focusing on a better past:

Make my hair
back to when you were punk.
we had rattails, sure
things were fun.

Yeah, everything was fun, but if you read the rest of the poem, you’ll find a subtle undertone of what it’s like to look back: like the bad aftertaste of a great meal. It’s kind of pathetic. And depressing. That’s the impression I got, at least. Buy the damn book to read the whole poem and tell me if I’m wrong.

Many of James’ poems are quite small, practically one liners. He really excels here.  “Books of Love” examines a myriad of things (dating, pleasure, money, class…) in just two sentences. Also, it’s funny.

As a whole, much of Austerity Pleasures feels like it specifically rebels against pretension.  Against the significant others and peers in our lives that measure a person’s worth by the amount of books they’ve read and how smart they sound when they speak about them. Sometimes this rebellion is subtle, other times blatant, but always well written.

Regardless of the writing, battling pretentious jag-offs and heart-breakers is something I can get on board with – especially when it’s funny.

Austerity Pleasures is out from Monster House Press. Check out what James Payne himself has to say at

Mason Johnson and James Payne