Sunday, October 28, 2007

Diminishing Returns, by Karl Koweski

Diminishing Returns, by Karl Koweski

sunnyoutside, 2007

ISBN 978-1-934513-01-9

38 pages, $8.00

Review by Eleanor Goodman

Mr. Koweski clearly enjoys telling stories, and he is good at it. In Diminishing Returns, most of the poems involve a narrative structure: a family road trip, an interaction between lovers or friends, an anecdote about the foibles of child-raising. These are not philosophical forays, nor art objects concerned with their own beauty. Rather, they are snapshots of people’s lives, full of humor and an offbeat view of our daily experience.

In “fiberglass dinosaurs,” a family visits an amusement park where “frozen monstrosities / hulk in the Tennessee woods / like junkyard Camaros.” Each member of the family responds differently to the scene, but the speaker, the father, is disappointed: “For me it’s another / wasted fifty dollars, / another bead on a / vacational string / of wasted fifty dollars.” Anyone who has brought a child to an amusement park or watched a kids’ video for the hundredth time can relate to this. But the father’s jaded eye is tempered by the reaction of his son, who “sees....the most awesome beasts / the world has ever offered / tamed only by his father’s presence. / And that alone / makes everything worthwhile.”

Mr. Koweski also looks into the darkness of families, and the potential for devastation when the family unit is dysfunctional. In his painful and humane poem, “the cat’s in the cradle and the kid’s in the litterbox,” he tells the story of two children, two years old and six months old, who are stranded in their trailer home for days after their parents die from drug poisoning. “The children sickly, but alive. / The two-year-old, perhaps / unaccustomed to a lack of / adult supervision, kept his / sister and himself fed / and watered with what he / found in the cat bowl / while their parents / decomposed in the bedroom.” There is little poetic cadence here; like many of the pieces in the book, the lines read like prose. It is important prose, however, and we need more stories like these in written form. Writing solidifies experience, and creates something more lasting and important than a tale to tell at a backyard barbeque. “Usually when I tell this story, / I’ll add a little levity. / I’ll say they were found / in the litter box, or, / at least they didn’t / scratch up the furniture. / But the jokes / are only tiny horrors / meant to obscure / the horrible truth.” Poetry makes casual joking more difficult, and “the horrible truth” becomes a bit more accessible.

Humor is a powerful coping mechanism, however, one which Mr. Koweski employs to good effect throughout the book. “Dancing with diane” is an amusing yet biting romantic history. The speaker describes being eight years old and being told by his parents to ask his cousin Diane to dance. Not knowing which girl in the room is Diane, he asks the drunkest blonde he can find instead.

She set down her

Long Island Iced Tea

and obliged me,

afterward asking the

quintessential question,

“Who are you?”

I’ve yet to answer

that question

but I’ve been dancing

with the wrong women

ever since.

Romance and sexuality are fertile topics for Mr. Koweski. He approaches both with verve. In “computer porn sabotage,” the speaker bemoans the erasure of “Northern Indiana’s largest / privately owned collection of porn” by his wife. “All those hours spent amassing... / the blondes, the brunettes, the redheads, / the midgets, the transvestites, / the double amputees.../ kilobit by painful dial-up kilobit.” The mind boggles trying to picture it – or trying distinctly not to picture it. But Mr. Koweski never flinches. He writes of the ugly, the ridiculous, the absurd, and the disturbing. We should all have such bravery.

Eleanor Goodman. Ibbetson Update. Nov. 2007. Somerville, Mass.

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