Friday, January 09, 2009

Human Derivatives in Doug Holder’s: The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel

Human Derivatives in Doug Holder’s: The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel (Cervena Barva Press)

article by Michael Todd Steffen

The man in the booth in the Midtown Tunnel, not the title of a poem but its subject, gives us, the passengers on the subway, a fleeting camera click of glimpse of a man defined in his function. He is confined to an extreme example of a human reduced from nearly all that makes him human, precisely because of how the world today is structured, encountered and processed. He is like a zoo animal. He paces the perimeter Of his cage, poet Doug Holder writes in lines reminiscent of Rainier Marie Rilke The Panther.

Holder typically takes these sorts of verbal photographs of people unusually overridden by probably what is not a definitive moment for the people as they really are, but by awkward vivid moments that would package them palatably for our quick-take-for-thrills media consciousness. People confined to monotonous jobs of function in a tunnel booth or at a post office machine, confined ridiculously for two years in a toilet, gotten up in colonial attire, apprehended at a maddened moment painting the statue of John Harvard red while tourists snap pictures.

The poet is snapping these photos partaking in the mania of his contemporary culture, and in doing so he is exercising a mimesis of the dynamics of 21st century perception, how data about ourselves is created and presented to others. As though our experience today consisted of a rapid succession of sudden images, spaced messages left, brief chats, sandwiches in wrappers on the go, news headlines, shifting windows, all with a hawks eye out for the next quirk or embarrassment to give cause to the perpetual laugh-track that must punctuate each moments joke, each segment of the day.

These are as serious implications as one would want to draw from a poet whose (can it be?) earnest intention is to humor us. Yet that Holder's perceptions are so keenly attuned to how the world works today gives an underlying substance to his seeming legerdemain, short poems of truncated lines, almost epigrammatic,laconic, tongue-in-cheek, yet at the same time oddly in the sympathetic spirit that Auden remembered in William Butler Yeats:

In a rapture of distress

Sing of human unsuccess.

And Doug Holder's disappointments succeed because, in partaking of the swift momentum of today's mediatized mindset, he stubbornly entertains his subjects as human in their dilemmas of being exposed. If the man in the booth of the Midtown Tunnel appears caged to us, how must we appear to him?

Faceless and a blur,

Behind thick plates

Of light-bleached glass.

Poignantly from so little, Holder produces a rather profound insight, articulated with lyrical simplicity:

And we will

All remain

Ignorant of

Each other.

A danger the poet risks in tailoring verse to popular contemporary expectations is that his or her work may be read with no more attention, say, than that ordinarily given to a cartoon strip or a note to the editor. Holders deft word-smithing, however, can halt us in the slaloms down the slopes, to want to mull over such coinings and scrivennings as blue uniform (Man in the Booth), It is only a hassle, (The Woman who Sat ), sea of manila (Postal Worker), the oxymoronic age's inertia (Two Old Women) and the metaphysical conceits of Bites of memory (The Last Hotdog) and of the final strophe in Postal Worker,

You feel

Ready to

Be returned to

Your sender

a dazzling compression of the momentary and mechanical with the ontological and transcendent.

In the recent year we have seen Doug Holder, a prolific and generous advocate of emerging poets in the Boston area, up in arms defending the worthiness of small press publications. Tirelessly he has organized readings and conducted interviews with local and national writers, giving them light of day on the Ibbetson Street website pages, in the Lyrical Somerville, and on the local Public Television program Author to Author. He has greatly helped give purpose to area intellectuals who meditate and labor to find expression in poetry and share as a community on Saturday mornings with the Bagels & Bards at the Davis Square Au Bon Pain. Cambridge/Somerville is a better place because of Doug Holder, and the small press made vital and serious because of the many publications he has been involved with, not least this latest collection of his own poetry that yields and yields enjoyment and meaning on reading after reading.

The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel by Doug Holder is available for $13.00 through Cervana Barva Press/P.O. Box 440357/W. Somerville, MA 02144-3222.

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