Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New & Selected Poems By Michael Casey

New & Selected Poems
By Michael Casey
Loom Press
Lowell, MA
ISBN: 978-093150742-7
162 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

When understated, casual, colloquial poetry—you know, the type that anyone can write—jolts winsome expectations with subtext after insightful subtext, watch out. Michael Casey has been writing this type of poetic narrative at least since 1972, when Stanley Kunitz chose his book Obscenities for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Casey’s new book, there it is New & selected Poems, chronicles his inspired career with lyrical monologues like no others. His poetry lures you in with its blue collar simplicity and sets you up, sometimes within a single piece, sometimes cumulatively. 

The collection’s opening poem, and one of my favorites, the last Yankee, packs a wallop. Casey narrates the travails of a house-poor elderly lady as she negotiates the twists and turns of life’s labyrinth. Her attempts to keep up appearances elicit the reader’s sympathy. On the other hand, her flaws conjure up consternation and an interesting tension. Consider these lines,

… she stood outside
pretending her bags
were filled with groceries
she said the City of Lowell
made an offer to give her
so much a month if only
she’d sign over the house
the owner of the Irish nursing home
tried a similar deal too
but she didn’t like the idea
the politicians and nursing home owner
were trying to steal her house
and she wanted me to understand
that two things ruined this town
unions and Catholics

One of the hallmarks of first and second generation immigrants in the now old industrial towns such as Lowell was rote learning. Catholic nuns often provided the delivery system. In his poem, severed head, Casey mixes brutality with venomous wit. Sister Superior, doubling as a substitute teacher, and a defensive one at that, asks the question, What did Marco Polo discover? Louie, the usually quiet student, answers, polo. The enraged Sister Superior assaults Louie with a metallic edged ruler (all Catholic school students of that era know the ruler I’m talking about) and opens up a blood-spewing gash in his head. There is not a little irony here. Additionally, Louie was correct. Marco Polo most probably saw buzkashi, a Central Asian game, played with a goat’s head, during his travels. In fact polo was most likely named after him. Here’s the piece’s denouement,

he bled all over
had to go to the hospital for stitches
his mother takes him
out of St Michael’s
transfers him to the Varnum
I see him much later
and says to him
Lou, why’d y’ever raise your hand?
why say Marco Polo discovered polo?
and Louie goes
he did didn’t he?
he goes you know
Mongolian horsemen with a severed head

Many of Casey’s mill poems drive home the inevitability of human nature in labor calculations, as well as survival traits.  Laugh out loud funny and stupidity does not entirely cancel out the underlying employment danger. The poet explains,

this new guy
he throws a bucket of the stuff
into the kettle
it splashes back
his ass was on fire
runnin all over the dye house
Walter chasin after him
it was Alfred and me caught him
and Walter helped us
throw him in a soap barrel
same fuckin guy
was gonna bring home
industrial peroxide
for his wife to dye her hair
Walter caught him then
just in time

Elevator transport holds the key to business success or failure in the factory world. Casey puts an exclamation point on this dictum in his poem entitled forklift driver. Humorously, the poet pins the sins of the world or at least its endangerment on a single multiple offender, the all-powerful forklift driver. In the heart of the piece the poet details the infraction,

he tried to drive the forklift in it
when the door was closed
that is the third day in a row
something like that happened
I’d say to him
don’t even bother ta punch out
just leave
it’d  be worth the week’s pay or so
just to get rid of him
do you know how important
that fuckin elevator is?

Drawing from his experience in the military police, the poet narrates with a combination of horror and black humor. The pieces themselves are insightful well-cut diamonds. Casey’s poem frisk especially sparkles. After the arrestee lets loose a torrent of verbal abuse, the MPs take action. Then the piece, noting the response, concludes with three punch lines. Take your pick,

who taught you how to talk tat nice?
guy replies
your mother and his sister
Harry and I didn’t say a word to him
we just looked at reach other
and then kicked
the drunk’s feet away from the wall
his face fell nose first
flat on the concrete
his neck actually cracks and snaps up
and I would not have cared more less
it was Harry’s fault anyway
he should a kept quiet
I don’t even have a sister

War equals death. Those who engage in it better understand its unbounded bestiality. Good people become good soldiers by killing. In fact both good soldiers and dead soldiers share certain traits. Casey’s persona in his piece Victor poses with an explanation,

… they back up the jeep
to take the picture looking down
and that is why the ground
is the actual background for the picture
except for that and the flies
the picture they took
makes both of us look alive

I’ve never seen sheer power and keen intellect and down-to-earth humor fused in just this way. Once again Casey’s poems detonate our hitherto artistic calm with their dangerous uniqueness. 

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