Saturday, October 19, 2013

Eating Grief at 3 AM by Doug Holder

Eating Grief at 3 A.M.
By Doug Holder
Muddy River Books
Brookline, MA
27 Pages

To order online:  

Review by Dennis Daly

What can you say about a poet who hates tulips, morning birdsong, and the seasonal promise of spring? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But we would be wrong. Doug Holder, the author of this amazing little chapbook, Eating Grief at 3 A.M., lives his poetry. On the one hand he exudes the feverous, edgy images of an insomniac; on the other hand he channels Henny Youngman in a manic comedy- by- the- numbers shtick. The combination saddens, disturbs, and ultimately enlightens with its unflinching insights into the forgotten and discarded denizens populating Holder’s eclectic landscapes.

The title poem, Eating Grief at Bickford’s, opens this collection. It is a paean to night people, to men and women who wander into Bickford’s seeking warmth, food, comfort, or company. Everything appears flawed here. The table cloths are threadbare. The plates cradle only crumbs. The porcelain cups reveal cracks. And, of course, the unwashed night walkers who stroll in, seeking what is missing from their broken lives.  This piece oozes nostalgia for the mildly repulsive details of this haven, which are virtually inseparable from the arms-length companionship offered there. The poet describes the scene this way,

The boiling water
Ketchup soup
The mustard sandwich
They used to relish
All that so lean

Oh, Hunchback
In the corner
Your lonely reflection
In the glass of water—

And Tennessee Williams’ Blanche
Eyes me through her grilled cheese
“Pass the sugar, sugar”
She teases.

My favorite poem in the book, Abandoned Warehouses, says little but suggests a lot. Empty spaces promote excitement and sometimes danger. Trysts happen there. So do meetings between enemy sides. Holder’s gone-to-seed warehouses provide sanctuaries for the poet/artist. Even as they surrender to nature’s encroachments, the warehouses still dispense something unique to the truth seekers among us. They seem to shut out the world. It is in places such as these that Holder finds his voice. He concludes,

Sometimes you must follow
The rat’s path
The vagrant,
The scrawled invective of the graffiti
The flow of some muddy, godforsaken creek
Before you can truly

In the poem Father Knows Best—Mother Does the Rest Holder unveils his tongue-in-cheek (or maybe not) homicidal side.  The poem is based on long running TV show starring Robert Young and Jane Wyatt. The show purports to show the typical American family with all its well-mannered accoutrements. Holder will have none of it. Strangely, his poetic technique is not sarcasm. The poet confronts his subjects with a humor infused with savagery. The father’s sweater emits “tyranny,” while his smile, according to Holder, seems “brutal.” Consider how the poem ends,

and she arrives
dancing with the dog
with an anxious, scripted
girlish giggle.
And don’t
you think
they would like to
kill him
just a little?

Holder remembers his elementary school art teacher in the poem entitled Mrs. Plant. The particular piece of art that he recalls from that teacher’s class is her own face. Like many people Mrs. Plant’s face was sculpted by her life’s experiences. Here’s how the poet puts it,

Her face,
A painting
That she worked on
For a long time.
An angry mask
Of red lips—
And rouge.
Sinking her cheeks…

But Mrs. Plant, like all of us, has a history, some sort of life that could have been. Holder ends the poem alluding to that life,

Walking back to
Her cold water flat
A love note
Stuffed in a pocket
Of her winter coat…?

Sometimes poetic lines do strange things. They weigh down what seems obvious—the literal-- with additional meanings and emotions. Holder’s poem You Know It Is Tough Being a Writer does this. The poet takes Henny Youngman type comedy one-liners and breaks them up into shorter lines comprising mostly of one, two, or three words. The effect is eerie and the words that make up these little self-deprecating jokes seem to acquire surprisingly sharp edges. Here’s one of those slowed down one-liners,

The run-down flats
The impoverished street
No one asked you the time
Just stole
Your fake

Pathos intermixed with what was stock comedy. Weird! Even during the poem’s denouement this effect takes place. The sharp elbows are still up targeting academia with a sneer (or, perhaps, wink) back at himself. Listen,

The dead silence
Of the mandarins
After translating
The works of Eliot
Into English.

And take my creative partner…

Holder-the-contrarian rants his irritable feelings out in a poem entitled Spring, This Ain’t a Love Poem. By the tenor of his words he seems to yearn for a madman’s weather, the kind that assaulted Gloucester in King Lear. Remember Gloucester, recalling the previous night’s storm and his toxic relationship with his son, remarks: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.” Certainly Holder seeks, at the very least, “the cold insular comforts.” The poem begins with a huff of frustration,

Oh for crying out loud
It is here again.
The tulips sprout
 Like maddening clich├ęs…
Blooming idiots!
And the chirp
Of those morning birds,
What are we left with?
Their pellets, their

The final poem in the collection, Disappearing From the Block, deals with human disintegration and tumultuous change. Whatever one’s moments in the sun may have been, no one gets out alive. We’ve come full circle: these are the frequenters of Bickford’s at 3 in the morning. The poet describes one such catastrophic change,

That couple
joined at the hip
the smiles always in unison.
Just yesterday
I saw him
in a distant
part of town
a vacant stare
with the early
morning addicts
his wife clipping weeds
and the bare and brittle
in their garden.

As each poem exceeded another foolish expectation I found myself exulting in the grandeur of down-and-out human experiences and the curious memories of humble moments. Holder’s pieces delivered and gilded that grandeur and those moments. Together these poems are a wonder of offbeat artistry.

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