Friday, September 04, 2020

Born With By Michael Daley


Born With

By Michael Daley

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-948017-85—5

85 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly


The art of narrative indirection requires not only a studied callousness, but also an abundance of fervor and a willingness to change course on a dime. Many of Michael Daley’s poems initially spit mulled anger and resentment through and out of his earthy stanzas before metamorphosizing into the most hopefully dressed, delicate winged lyrics (or vise versa). Daley manages this by strategically interrupting his story-line or ending it abruptly, then dwelling on the word power that got him to that point.


Among School Children opens Daley’s poetic collection with a delightful tale about the utilitarian use of a student’s ugly suspenders by a frantic schoolteacher. The poet, himself brags that “I’ve lifted hundreds out of sorrow with my story. / If I’ve known you a week, I’ve told it three times.” The story ends predictably enough with the protagonist child lashed to his chair with said suspenders as the fire alarm rings. But the piece doesn’t end there. Employing a metaphor of life altering implication, Daley comments on the rest of his artistic career with his fearful ending,


After a lifetime, I understand her calm, her need

to reassure us—we were babies—but I knew then—

her eyes on me—my best friends giggling as they filed

to safety, some looking back—her eyes on me,

that silent glare from my first cherished Muse—

I knew she would leave me to burn.


Another poem set early in his collection, Daley entitles Awakening in Five Irish Towns. In this eight-stanza piece the poet takes his own measurement foretelling the general bent of his future from the lifelines on the palms of his hands and the posture of other hands. His narrative documentation devolves into an historic dreamtime and back again. In one stanza, set in the legendary city of Cobh, Daley confronts the statue of a rebel ancestor, Eamon O’Dalaigh (Ned Daly), a leader of the 1916 Irish Rebellion. O’Dalaigh was later shot by a British firing squad for his troubles. The poet laments the loss of focus as the stubborn courage of his contemporary Bobby Sands and other Irish hunger strikers are barely remembered,


Later I awoke, my clothes still drenched,

in a train car next to a man and a woman

who knew him as Ned Daly,

citizens who barely could recall the Maze hunger-

strikers wiped out of history as if a tornado

scoured prayer beads from their hands.


In Daley’s poem, Children of the Storm, his persona encounters hurricane refugees from New Orleans, flush with cash. The man, who has a patch over one eye, hopelessly in love. The woman on a mission. They buy an oversized desk to take with them to Montana in their van. There is mystery here. Possibly alcoholism and violence. They also own a dog and a gun rack.  But the rest of the story is not forthcoming. Instead, the poem becomes an internal conversation and a judgment of good character. The poem concludes with that judgment,


Wish I’d shown some sympathy for the eye.

Or his Homeric allusions. She’s loved him at least

the dog’s whole life. She hunted this desk, after all.


She and Polyphemus will lug it bovver twelve steps.

Is that how they me?

Sobered up and blasted out of New Orleans?


It swells their estate of antiques.

A gun rack great-grandfather milled,

a thing he’ll never pawn.


Gentle people, small talk.


Perhaps more than any other piece, Daley’s title poem, Born With, delivers both his pragmatic narrative pull and extraordinary lyrical power that works in another dimension, a more ethereal plane. The two angles of perception almost compete in the arena of Daley’s page.  Yet, strangely, the entire tableau is painted within a phone call from the old man to his poet-son. Hurricane weather had burst into the old man’s home and chaos ensues. A 911 call is made and fireman arrive to tend to the old man and plug up the holes in his dilapidated house. After the fact, the actions of these brave interlopers invigorate the man and transport him outside himself. He becomes amazed at the goodness of the external world. Listen to Daley’s exquisite language,


They came through the howler—winter a curse off ocean-

       driven snows,

sea wall crushed on, hour by iced hour, wave on top of wave.

A spray on the porch so nonchalant was ironically gentle.

In strobe light emergency they bustled in,

Burley friendly guys, meaty fists lugged soot-pocked helmets,

one of them bandy-legged with a worried smile—and up

he said, right up the steps to the bedroom,

the old marriage bed emptied—

he wouldn’t have mentioned to them

much less to me—thirty years ago,

the room itself draped in dust and salt rot,

or that he slept in a room even noisier—

howl of ghost winters gurgled

sea rash, wave toss, rock crack—

a gaggle in the old man’s dream…


First the poet details the procedure, then fury sets in, then numbness spreads in his piece entitled The Last Master—about the euthanasia of a dog. I like this poem a lot, but it is a little too close to home. Glossing past the tendency to anthropomorphize and the obvious emotionality of the moment, the poet turns sadness into acrimony. We are talking about love and the death of consciousness, aren’t we? Here is how the piece concludes,


We’re past the sniff of bush, piss on tree,

black eye rolled back to the master, last wag,

past the killing praise, softly voiced, Good Boy,

that soothes an old man’s rage and stops my heart.


Some poets are born with an internalized muse, a muse who has a will of her own and a set of contrary aesthetics. Daley is one of these hosts. The lucky bastard.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

"The Essential Doug Holder: New and Selected Poems" review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili

 Doug Holder

THE ESSENTIAL DOUG HOLDER New & Selected Works  $15 Big Table Publishing 

Review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili



Doug Holder’s poetry is an examination of people and things, but more importantly their patinas. In many of the poems there is a gentle awareness conveyed to the reader—an acknowledgement that everything will eventually deteriorate. Holder’s poetry is subtle, deeply empathetic, and captures moments of vulnerability with unmatched elegance and fragility. In the poem “On the Ward: Stuffed Animals”, Holder writes

“At night
as you
check the rooms
the flashlight discovers
these animals
attached to grown
like suckling babes
held tightly
against the darkness—
memories of morning
the deep chasms
that were never
On these lonely
any union
will do” (Holder 48)


                On the cover of THE ESSENTIAL DOUG HOLDER New & Selected Works,  Doug Holder, the poet of the collection, stands modestly in the bottom right hand corner of his own book, his hands are placed defensively in his pockets, and under his arms he carries a newspaper. It is hard to tell if his weary eyes are gazing at you, at the ground, or if he lost in his own thoughts. Bold white text is superpositioned on the page, pushing the poet to the back of his own cover. The cover seems off balanced, as though the subject (Doug Holder) is about to leave the reader any minute. The background is composed mostly of silhouettes of trees and buildings, while the foreground is composed of shadows. The sun is either rising or setting, and a ray of sunlight falls on Holder. On the bottom of the page, a quote from Boston’s first Poet Laureate Sam Cornish reads “Holder is a poet of the street... an observer of the everyday… he sees the world not for what it is, but on his own terms”. At first, I thought that the picture was a strange choice for the cover of a book—surely, Holder had a centered picture of himself he could have used instead.  But, after reading Holder’s collection this cover art was in fact the perfect choice.

In the poem “
Life of the Party” Holder writes:

“After all,
you were
the center […]

the approving smiles
from the women
the perfect opiate
but never enough

And for this moment
you were a man
among men

And then
in the bathroom mirror
who was this imposter
short and bald
struggling with
his fly […]” (Holder 76)


 (Insert drumroll here) While you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, or so we are told, in the case of this book, the cover art perfectly captures the essence of Holder’s style. Similar, to how Holder doesn’t stand in the center of his cover, his poetry employs innovative stylistic techniques that invite the reader into the poem without ever directly breaking the fourth wall. This is achieved by both the tone of the poems, and how vulnerable and honest the speaker of the poems makes himself. There is a “Confessional” quality to the poetry, yet unlike Confessional poetry the poetry is not as emotionally forceful. This often catches the reader off-guard, but the poems themselves are so well balanced—either thematically, or in their emotional content that the reader can easily regain their footing.

Holder uses ellipses, like no one else. Ellipses are normally used to exclude less relevant text from passages. You will often find Holder using ellipses to cut his own conclusions short, as though to indicate to the reader that his conclusions are not that important, or perhaps that he has not formed any. These unresolved conclusions become almost a rhetorical question that can significantly alter the meaning and tone of the poem. Take for instance the poem “A Dream of Minnie Baum”:

“She exchanges Yiddish for English with mother
tit for tat.

I am trapped…
my stomach leaden with chicken fat.
Bronx cheers from the pavement below” (Holder 80)

                In the poem above, the word ‘trapped’ is followed by an ellipsis. This leads the reader to wonder if the speaker is trying to escape. Depending on the answer, yes or no, the meaning of the poem can greatly change. The charm of Holder’s poetry is that it does not impose its views on the reader. It does not try to force a way of thinking on the reader. It draws a clear distinction between the ‘real world’, and the poet’s interpretation of the world. There are fantastical moments in Holder’s poetry, but the reader is rarely left wondering where the line between reality, and Holder’s interpretations of reality falls. At times they don’t align, and this is often where we see ellipses—omissions of conclusions, or pseudo-questions, where Holder seems to be asking himself and the reader how to negotiate “everyday observations with his own terms”.


                Confessional poetry is often extremely assertive. The emotions are so raw, that the reader is often overwhelmed and consumed by them—they impose their will on the reader. This can be a very powerful artistic choice, but ultimately limits the reader’s interpretive freedom. Holder’s poetry often includes very intimate details, but the raw emotions are toned down. Holder’s emotions do not convolute reality, and not force the reader to interpret events one way or another. Even though the poems are written from Holder’s point of view, the poems are not just about him. This allows the reader to explore Holder’s world with him—not just be passive listeners. For example on page 146, “ I don’t know why”, Holder writes:

“i don’t know why
i have visions of elevated tracks
subways defiantly roaring
at the dark
damaged men pawing costume
jewelry[…]” (Holder 146)

The first two lines of the poem start with “i”, yet they are both lowercase, which draws less attention to the repetition. This is followed by the powerful image of a “subway defiantly roaring at the dark”, followed by another powerful image. When Holder uses the word “i” in this poetry it is simply to provide the reader with context. 


The entire collection opens with the poem “Daddy, Is He a Monster?”

“A child caught sight of me on a bus
propped up on his seat
safe within his father’s fold
he said
“Is he a monster?”

My head
poking out of a protective shell of newspaper
a suspicious crab
peering at a threatening predator” (Holder 23)

Holder’s poetry shares very intimate details. Initially, this can throw the reader off a bit, because we just aren’t used to people sharing such personal thoughts. Thoughts that are so personal, we may even feel uncomfortable hearing them if some of our closest family or friends shared this information with us. But, Holder does not withhold much from his reader, but quickly the reader realizes that this honesty is what makes his work so captivating. At certain points you almost wonder if you are even supposed to be reading these extremely personal reflections. The poem “Unknown in a Crowd”, to some degree expresses this sentiment:

“And that’s when
you felt most at peace—
lost in the cornucopia.
like the multi-eyed
fly on the wall
away from the claustrophobic intimacy.
not observed
owner of you own dialogue…” (Holder 37)


                But, the reader despite being thrown off by the unguarded nature of the poems, can easily regain their footing, because of how Holder brilliantly balances everything. Opposing themes, and tones act as counterbalances to each other. The poem “At the Reading: Young Poet”, is a brilliant example of how Holder uses a poetry reading to explore the question of what is and isn’t worthy of art, and more importantly gives us insight into his own aesthetic philosophy.

“She talked of making love
as if a new discovery[…]
of old Cambridge Victorians
cigarette smoke
lipstick traces
romantic places
half-empty glasses
the lingering scent
remembered words…
phrases […]

From the corner
an old woman
lifted her head
from the rim of her shot glass
and cackled
breaking the spell:
“What’s the big deal, kid, and two dogs could do that.” (Holder 31)

This poem is particularly interesting because of its many layers. The young woman, and the old woman represent two opposite sides of the same coin. Both are in ways equally cliché. Yet, Holder finds them both to be equally important subjects, and he is simultaneously interested and critical of both. Using themes to counterbalance each other, is one-way Holder’s work keeps the reader constantly engaged. In another poem Holder writes, “The bridge/to the Bronx/a spurt of connective tissue./ Bridging a new limb to an old” (Holder 51).

                In addition to using themes as counterbalances, Holder also uses dramatic and comedic elements to create balance in his poems.  In the poem “First Night on the Job on the Psychiatric Ward”, Holder starts the poem off by painting a very dramatic scene. But the mythical elements are quickly pushed aside and replaced with humor. These sharp turns in poems, are particularly interesting because of how they change the pace of the poems without using any grammar or white space.

“The night seemed perfectly cast…
stormy, thunder and rain
the patient was biblical
long hair and a beard
with his staff at his command.

He put a paternal hand on me
and called me his finest creation
what could I do but thank him?
He smiled with divine patronization” (Holder 33)

Ravi Teja Yelamanchili currently works at Boston University as a Functional Analyst. His writing has previously been published in Ibbetson Street, The Muddy River Poetry Review, Somerville Times, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Muse India, and several other journals. He also won the Boston Mayor’s Poetry Program Contest.