Sunday, September 10, 2017

Doug Holder’s Last Night at the Wursthaus A Review by Neil Silberblatt

Poet Doug Holder

Doug Holder’s Last Night at the Wursthaus
A Review by Neil Silberblatt
Ever since Lot’s wife cast that fateful glance over her shoulder, nostalgia has been an irresistible (and often highly risky) proposition.  It must be noted that – whereas Cain’s life was spared even after murdering his brother – Lot’s wife was executed for the “sin” of looking back.  Whether one is recalling egg creams, madeleines or past loves or civilizations, nothing tastes as sweet as that which has passed.
It is no less true in poetry.  Whether Homer is recounting the beauty that was Troy, or Philip Levine is rhapsodizing about his brother (“… We were twenty / for such a short time and always in / the wrong clothes”, from his poem, You Can Have It), poets – no less than Mrs. Lot (we never do find out her first name) – cannot resist casting nostalgic glances.  (I have yet to read a really good poem which seeks to predict the future.)
In this short poetry collection, which is quickly devoured (but should be savored slowly), Doug Holder avoids the pitfalls of nostalgia, while traversing its streets carefully.  The opening lines of the title poem, Last Night at the Wursthaus – “How I miss / that hush from the Square / the dark oasis” – could have been uttered by that nameless woman looking back at her home in Sodom, just before she was salinated.

There are some delightful references buried in these poems, for example, to the headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” (perhaps the greatest headline in that tabloid’s history), which ran on The New York Post’s front page on April 15, 1983.  (Trust me, Holder’s poem The Newspaper is far less graphic.)  In his poem, I Am Willy Loman, he doffs his hat (a well worn Fedora, one presumes) to the “attention must be paid” soliloquy spoken by Linda Loman – after her husband’s suicide - in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

There are bits and pieces scattered about in these poems – as one might find in a thrift or vintage clothing store – which immediately evoke a time and place now lost, except in memory: an Arrow shirt; the “Dashing Dan” logo for the Long Island Railroad; double-breasted suits; a priceless Neil Simon-like exchange between his grandmother (“You went all over Europe, you were a playboy!”) and his father (“Ma! I was in the army – World War II”); and even the late “Professor” Irwin Corey (29 July 1914 – 6 February 2017), an American stand-up comic often billed as “The World's Foremost Authority” (on what – like Lot’s Missus’s first name - was never specified).

He even manages to resurrect, or pay homage to, the great alliterative phrase "Nattering nabobs of negativism” which Presidential speech writer (and, later, grammarian) William Safire wrote for former Vice President Spiro Agnew (remember him?).

But, far more than a sense of nostalgia – which can evoke a “you had to be there” feeling, which may be lost on those who were not – Holder’s poems evoke a humanism which transcends time and place.  His poem, Death of a Homeless Man – putting aside the brutal title – is heartbreaking in its plea for a little human warmth: “Oh! Cradle me / Cradle me / in your arms! / I am not a stick / or merely a bone. / I was a boy, running through a meadow ….”

His poem, My Mother Prepares Me for Death – which put me in mind of William Carlos Williams’ The Last Words of My English Grandmother – captures that grey period between the light and its opposite, “She can’t understand / what ails her.”

As one battling cancer, his poem Lung Cancer: Stage 4 hit home with a special resonance and brought to mind (not that they are ever forgotten) my own ongoing struggles.  But, the poem’s effect would be felt even by those not yet acquainted with that monster.

It is always dicey to choose a favorite in a collection like this, but I would have to give that spot to My Father’s Fedora, as beautiful an homage to his dad’s “weathered Stetson”  - “I swear / I could feel / the brush / of his / warm, / ancient, hand” - as the character Colline sings to his beloved worn overcoat in the aria (“Vecchia zimmara senti”) in Puccini’s La Boheme (just before selling that overcoat to pay for a doctor for the dying Mimi).

Ultimately, these poems work for anyone with the gift and curse of memory, and – like Lot’s wife – are to be taken with a touch of salt.

Neil Silberblatt
10 September 2017

 Neil Silberblatt was born and grew up in New York City.  His poems have appeared in several print and online literary journals including Verse Wisconsin; Hennen’s Observer; Naugatuck River Review; Chantarelle’s Notebook; Oddball Magazine; and The Good Men Project. His work has also been included in Confluencia in the Valley: The First Five Years of Converging with Words (Naugatuck Valley Community College, 2013), an anthology of selected poetry and prose; and in University of Connecticut’s Teacher-Writer magazine.  He has published two poetry collections: So Far, So Good (2012), and Present Tense (2013).  He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and one of his poems – Recycling Instructions – received Honorable Mention in the 2nd Annual OuterMost Poetry Contest judged by Marge Piercy.
Neil is the founder of Voices of Poetry and, since 2012, has organized a series of poetry readings – which have featured a diverse array of accomplished poets and writers and talented musicians – at venues in New York and Connecticut and on Cape Cod, including The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT; New Britain Museum of American Art; Hartford Public Library; Katonah Village Library in Katonah, NY; Eldredge Public Library in Chatham; and Brewster Ladies’ Library. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review of a book I'm expecting to arrive any day now, and looking forward to the read.