Sunday, June 17, 2012

Surrender When Leaving Coach By Joel Lewis

Surrender When Leaving Coach

By Joel Lewis

Hanging Loose Press

Brooklyn, New York

ISBN: 978-1-934909-26-3

124 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Some poets sing. Some paint images. Some invoke spiritual or philosophical vibrations to carry the mood. Joel Lewis does none of these arty things. Yet Lewis somehow makes poetry happen. His poems emerge from a background of dissonance and human density, like quartz or obsidian out of craggy rock. Lewis creates his context of noise from mass transit vehicles: bus, train, shuttle, and ferry. The noise of these vehicles includes conversation snippets of passengers, storefront sights, quotes from books, jokes, famous and anonymous people, and much more.  What rises to the level of poetry will often depend on the reader and his or her sensitivities. In his poem, Walking Main Street, Hackensack Lewis recalls 1988,

… buses idling against the Transfer Station platform.

A thick goodbye to old Hackensack Saturdays

with farmers swarming off up-country’s

Susquehanna trains—those Wortendyke Dutch

and moody Paramus celery ranchers have left their progeny

a vast Mall to inhabit…

Twenty years later the poet returns by bus and finds most stores of his youth are gone, but his favorite hamburger joint still there, offering some stability in his fast moving universe,

“Is Prozy’s Army and navy open?”


What about Womrath’s Books?”

“Gone for years.”

“How about White Manna?”

“Some people say Hackensack

should shut down if

‘ the Manna’ closes.”

Well ‘the Manna’ is not closed and Lewis enjoys his comforting potato flour hamburger rolls and the oniony meat before getting back on the bus. Lewis’ vehicles not only transport his reader across town, but also across time. 

The poem, Mass Transit Journal: January, is one of four monthly journal poems in which the poet delivers more context and the poetry of everyday belching black soot grittiness. He records,

1/18, 8:00am, on the S46 (towards West New Brighton)

bus slogs up to the Victory Boulevard stop

meat pies of all nations in a still-gated store window

columns of industrial rain on a Van Duzer Street awning

my butchered hesitations, my inhibited fantasies of power

as the bus climbs uphill

I look back

see oil tankers parked in the Narrows…

The poet counts his blessings while watching his wife as she eats crème brulee at a French brasserie, which is, of course, located inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He comments on the scene,

—a scenario I’d have found

hard to imagine in the late ‘70s,

either marriage or a bistro

in that scary homeless dormitory

where I’d catch the bus back

to my basement warren

in North Bergen

after another evening

of poetry readings…

Like most poets and other people Lewis has had bad times that have made an impression on him, and in his case, he cannot believe his present good luck. (After writing this I would recommend knocking on wood).

In his title poem, Surrender When Leaving Coach, Lewis quotes Barrett Watten:” A bus ride is better than most art.” He then goes on to test this principle in the poem itself, self-consciously dropping names as he writes,

Once again my obsession with

the motion of buses, trains and canal boats

and Paterson has it all


a heavy-duty waterfall

elegantly framed in the five-volume Paterson

of William Carlos William

and it’s where I once took Bill Berkson,

Robert Creeley (I have the photo)…

Not to be missed in this poem is the “Zen bus driver,” who I believe I’ve met in a different context. The poem ends with a lovely stanza, a jewel which seems to me to burst through the density of static. The poet describes the scene thusly,

Grey crescent moon above Port Newark’s cranes:

that distant space that stretches out

beyond the grasp, at-history haze

of retreating winter light

along the Jersey horizon.

The poet identifies himself as a true nerd in the poem, The Origins of My Social Marginalization. He corrects “Fun Fact #226” on the underbelly of a flavored tea bottle cap and is rewarded with a case of Snapple from the Schweppes-Cadbury Corporation. That’s funny. But funnier still is the poet’s recitation of the history of Spaghetti-o’s in his poem entitled Spaghetti-o’s. Here is a bit of literature to remember:

Because salesmen had trouble

pronouncing the family name

it changed to the now familiar phonetics

of Chef Boyardee line

of prepared dinners.

Everyone is proud

of his own family name,”

said Chef Hector,

“but sacrifices were necessary

for progress.”

August Yale Professor Harold Bloom makes a cameo appearance noting his adoration of the New York Yankees in the poem, How Harold Bloom Chills Out. But Lewis tops this comedic scene in the poem, Daydream Nation,

Phil Rizzuto, upon hearing of the death of Pope Paul VI:

“Well, that kind of puts a damper on even a Yankee win!”

Lewis’ delivers quite a few one-liners and uses famous names for effect. A dying Babe Ruth says to Connie Mack: “The termites got me!”  And in the poem, The Academy of an American Poet, there is a very unflattering but human picture of Robert Frost in which Lewis makes a point on hero worship and writers’ communities.

I was slow to warm to these poems, but when I did, especially with Lewis’ sense of humor, they grabbed me.

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