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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Wicked Hard David R. Surette

Wicked Hard
David R. Surette
Koenisha Publications
ISBN: 987-0-9800098-8-0

“armed with the light
fixture suspended from its wire,
I tried to burn my brother with the bulb
as he swung by standing on the doorknobs
it burst into blue flame, a pop,..”

Surette's poetry is crisp, terse and humorous, with great respect, the poet uses experience to inform the poems. His childhood and growing years explain our own roots within that same self absorbed world. “She walked out of the bathhouse, we turned to see.”  As the reader turns the pages, each poem finely crafted, sparks our imagination and curiosity:

“...first gig drive from Malden to Boston seems endless.
I hit the curb turning West to Medford Street,
change the tire in pit stop time.
No Exit, boys Life, Unnatural Axe & Lapeste,
The bass player's mother said he couldn't go.
He snuck out.
It would be his only show.
The set's over in a blink.
The ride home takes seconds...”

His poems are just like that, the unspeakable, last chance to play, song. We encounter all the emotions of maturing; lust, greed, recognition and death. And more than that all the poems are about love:

“...Except those who stayed
behind, gravely wounded by
failure and doubt,
the curse of being
different and not
different enough,
having no meds
or not the right dose,
or dosing themselves,
broken-hearted and
sadder than they should be,
hair's horn or a
curtain across the eyes,
their deaths called sudden,
their wakes swollen
as only a teenager's can be.”

Wicked Hard blankets our age and our cool realities. The poems do not resist reality, instead, they encounter situations that maybe familiar and veiled with unfamiliar. The reader is warmed by their directness. Each word contains its own full meaning and manages to reach us. We realize we are privy to the poets' experiences but also we realize it is the humanness of the poems that help us relate:

“...I knew I'd never see him again.
I should have asked
why we never were friends.”

Irene Koronas
Poetry Editor:
Wilderness House Literary Review
Boston small Press & Poetry Scene

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Nothing by Design By Mary Jo Salter

Nothing by Design
By Mary Jo Salter
Alfred A. Knopf
Borzoi Books
New York
108 Pages (Hardcover)

Review by Dennis Daly

Our universe provides little architecture for the internal paths of our lives. We routinely sculpt old expectations, and make things new by redesigning our days with charged up meaning and personal significance. Poets also follow this pattern, but even more so. They struggle to string together a mode of existence, often doling out praise and blame as they go. Most become demi-gods in their own minds—but not all.

In her new collection of poems, Nothing by Design, Mary Jo Salter creates her singular poetic world with a rare combination of vintage forms, wondrous music, and a very contemporary sensitivity. By her metrically adept pieces she belies her book’s title (at least as it relates to artistic creation) and she plumbs the layered, ironic depths of her subjects. Salter’s poems are wide ranging covering the lives of fellow poets who touched her, a section with some pretty funny light verse, warfare’s logical absurdity, adulterous behavior of a spouse, divorce, and a contextually astounding version of an Anglo-Saxon poem.

The introductory poem entitled Morning Mirror sets the philosophical stage. At an academic retreat of some sort, having her six o’clock morning coffee, the poet espies a bow tied man, a likely lecturer at the same conference, out for a walk by the lake’s edge. As she watches him she notices that at the same time she is being watched by a deer, which gazes at her in an unsettling but neutral manner. The poet describes her reaction to the experience this way,

I’m trying to unthink the expectations
of my given kind, to adopt another mode, a
curious but disinterested sense
of otherness. (Why is it for a week
all the deer have been either does or fawns?
Somebody knows the answer.) She wants more
from me, or maybe nothing; sniffs the grass,
nibbles a bit, then twitches: her profile high,
she bounds to the shore with leisurely, sure leaps

Salter’s irony conveys us through society’s expectations for humanity in a poem called The Gods. The poet often sits in an upper balcony of the concert hall she frequents. The patrons who sit in these seats are referred to as “the Gods” because they peer down on everyone else. But the truth is that these seats are the worst in the house. Railings impede vision. The performers devolve into ants. Even more unfortunately, the ceiling above these seats is decorated with eminent names of philosophers and artists, as well as the virtues they promoted. The poet comments,

It’s more the well-fed gods
of philanthropy who seem
enshrined in all their funny,
decent, noble, wrong

postulates, and who haunt
these pillared concert halls,
the tinkling foyers strung
with chandeliered ideals,
having selected which
dated virtues—COURAGE

Chiseling into stone;
having been quite sure
that virtue was a thing
all men sought…

Our Friends the Enemy, a poem set in No Man’s Land between the trenches during World War I on Christmas Day 1914, tells the story of an unofficial truce and a football game between the British and the German soldiers. The story is true and, of course, completely absurd: it changed nothing. But that’s not the point. The game like an artwork or a poem became a miniature universe for a time and mere mortals created the values (read BROTHERHOOD and GLORY) in that universe. Salter refers to the madness of Ajax during the Greek/Trojan war in a pretty cool opening section. Here are a few of the lines,

Were they mad?
They kicked the severed head
of the football across the frozen mud
like Ajax running wild in the field:
it was the sheep he killed
when he’d thought he’d been slaughtering
Odysseus and Agamemnon…

Reading Salter’s poem Drinking Song will drive you to drink both metaphorically and literally. It is the poet’s master work in this book. Not only does its music work as a joyous drinking song, but it also compels as a dirge of profound sadness and solemnity. Its purpose is to tell a story. The tight meter and rhyme scheme control the lines and help the poet inject her cathartic irony and outright sarcasm. Even the syntactical aberrations are wonderful and detract nothing from the literal meaning. Consider these well-wrought stanzas,

Coffee tea and morning toast,
none loved more and love was most.
Up we dressed for dinner out,
Prozac and Prosecco, doubt.

Peace in time and time to seethe,
Open wine and let it breathe.
Mix up our imperfect match:
dry martini, olive branch.

Jesus, who agreed the whore
he shall have with him always more?
Econo lodge and Scottish Inn,
vodka, orange, scotch, and gin…  

Another marriage-gone-wrong poem entitled Complaint for Absolute Divorce drips its sarcastic acid onto the page, diluted only with the author’s affecting and heart-rending big-picture irony. This well done villanelle also gives the book its spot-on title. Salter seems to have chosen her form, the villanelle, for absolute control of her deep and volatile emotions. It works! She cuts her real betrayer, the as-is universe, and at the same time conveys a deep, almost inconsolable, sadness. Salter ends her poem,

…who could feel remorse?
That “Absolute” was rather fine.
A little something to endorse

the universe as is: for worse,
for better. Nothing by design.
Complaint for Absolute Divorce,

let me salute you, sole recourse!
I put my birth name on the line—
a little something—and endorse
the final word, then, in “Divorce.”

Notice also that the poem’s title in the penultimate stanza is fittingly self-referential.

Salter’s eloquent version of the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer strangely complements her contemporary poems. Or perhaps not so strangely. Faced with an uncaring, neutral world the poet makes sense of her life through art. She creates the molds and the metrics of her life: the tighter and more formal the poetry, the more control she has over her emotional material. Now she has a choice. Either she becomes the God of her own creations or she looks elsewhere for the origin of the order and understanding she brings to life. Remember the deer in her first poem, which leaps away with Kierkegaard-like surety. I’m betting the Seafarer tips us off to her decision. Listen to these lines,

The joys of the Lord can kindle
more in me than dead
and fleeting life on land.
I do not believe the riches
of this world will last forever.
Always, without fail,
of three things one will turn
uncertain for a man
before his fatal hour:
sickness, age, or the sword
will rip the life right out
of the doomed and done for.
The best praise will come after

From people who outlive him…

Salter’s artistry and technical beauty amaze each time you reread her poems. They will endure beyond this generation. This book belongs among her best. The word timeless comes to mind.