Friday, September 19, 2008

Village Limits by Greg Joly

Village Limits by Greg Joly

Adastra Press
(16 Reservation Rd., Easthampton, MA, United States
(413)527-3324, (413)549-2201 fax)

Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of poems in Greg Joly’s Village Limits, just published by Adastra Press: short, serious, meditative poems, such as “15,” “Sawmill,” “Village Spring,” and “she said,” and longer, narrative, often amusing ones, such as “Directions,” “Firewall,” “Town Meeting,” and “Milk-Run Driver.” What unites them all, and gives the book an enjoyable sense of eavesdropping on small town life, is character – and, in many cases, characters, the classic rural New England kind in their contemporary incarnation.

The brief “Village Spring” opens the book:

Peter leaves wide
the doors to his shop
& all day
little is done
as people stop to
talk winter out
of their systems
in a cradle
of sun
two open doors.

Like most of the shorter poems, this one is more lyrical than the longer ones, and here the character, Peter, is more a part of the background than a full-blown character. But we get a sense of what he must be like, because he’s clearly a magnet for the town folk, a relaxed presence who makes them feel comfortable lingering and chatting.

In “Sawmill,” another short poem, Joel is also undeveloped, but he is the catalyst for his fellow workers noticing a kind of beauty they might not otherwise notice, which tells us something important about him:

When pitching boards
sometimes a knot
breaks free
We hold these out
for Joel who first
held one
clear against
the late spring
sun to show us
how the rosin-thick
edge blazed
a translucent corona
ravenous to flare
up on coals knocked
bright in the predawn cold.

“15,” however, is all character, a girl determined to make it on her own, no matter what it costs her, as the second half of the poem makes clear:

& she knows well enough
to keep clear of her mother’s
boyfriend back at the trailer.
& who cares if she spends
the high school weekend
turning a trick
with some rich ski bum.
At least that way she can
pay her own way
& the baby’s.

More predominant in the book, however, are longer poems, one to five pages, all or partially humorous, that paint colorful portraits of small town characters “in action.”

Walter speaking at the “Town Meeting” against a motion to increase the town’s donation to the animal shelter; Nat Heath “comin’ off Gilbert Hill full / tilt with 90 bales of straw” that have caught fire; Simon, ice cream in his beard from the cone he’s eating, telling some “flatlanders” who ask, “How to do you get to Manchester?” that “My brother usually takes me.”

There a few more serious narrative poems, too. “Last Auction of the Season in Worthington” interweaves the auctioneer’s plea for bids for Robert C. Treager’s tools and farm implements with quotes from the conversations townspeople are having as the auction goes on. In “Mud Season,” the narrator, a newspaper editor, is given a dressing down by a citizen who didn’t like what the editor had written in a recent issue.

The longer, narrative poems are less “quotable.” Their impact is cumulative, the tale building over the entire length of the poem.

It must also be added that this is yet another beautifully produced book from Gary Metras’s wonderful Adastra Press – which was the subject of well-deserved accolades in the most recent issue of Poets & Writers. The creamy paper, well-chosen font, and sharp, clear printing present these poems in a way that would make any poet envious. Would that all poetry could be displayed for the world in such an artistic package.

Lawrence Kessenich/Ibbetson Update

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