Monday, October 16, 2023

Swift River Ballad Poems by Thomas DeFreitas


Swift River Ballad

Poems by Thomas DeFreitas

Kelsay Books

ISBN: 978-1-63980-416-0

41 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

When tonality rides along the surface in poetry the results often appear strangely profound. In Thomas DeFreitas’ new book, Swift River Ballad, the poet pilots his paper boat of sorts down a torrent of uplifting canticles and unsettling hymns, seeking the truth, but missing the dangerous rocks and eddies along the way.

DeFreitas stops his readers in their too comfortable tracks with curiously numinous images and sacerdotal references. His technique strikes one as unusual (in the sense of modern verse) and new. Depth is never a problem here. The poet’s perfect pitch phraseology allows submergence into subconscious levels when necessary and proper in an emotive sense.

In his opening poem Autumnography DeFreitas follows “the undermutter of stiffening leaves” and with it the unveiling of the season. The sun, of course, plays off these well-said, if standard, natural phenomena using spy craft, then letting things deepen into mortality and garishness,

Furtive now, clandestine,

whisper-witted gestures,

but soon enough: blatant,

reckless flamboyance,

spending fire-colors

in a glorious death-gamble.

Elegy, DeFreitas’ poem of sorrow and hope, resounds with empathy for a little girl afflicted with the illnesses of humankind, who ages into a wintery dependency. She lived and lives in a world of lost children, a world that begs for attention and, perhaps, safeguards a metaphysical secret. Even Dolores’ name reverberates with sadness. The last two imploring stanzas read like a formal prayer,

Every living voice

sings with Dolores,

Queen of Limerick,

Lady of Sorrows,

fierce as Freya

when she’s at the guitar,

brave as St. Brigid,

this whiskey soprano,

this pint-sized fighter.

Every parched spirit

drinks with Dolores,

from a well of solace,

from a lake of grace

pure as the first star

kindled in Genesis,

wide as the mantle

of the sheltering Virgin.

DeFreitas becomes a double for Shakespeare’s Falstaff in his piece entitled My Belly. The poem, written in prosaic form, flies across the page, propelled by humor, interesting word choices and touches of vulgarity. The poet personifies his gut and imbues it with majesty and power. He opens the piece this way,

is ample and accepting, catholic and capacious; it takes up space, it

gives you room: my big old liberal belly, filled with poached eggs

and coffee, subversive stories and baritone dollops of whimsy.

Today I am thanking my belly for being so well-rounded: truly, a

civil and impeccable gentlebelly, eager with factoids, brave with

bombast, adroit at a quadrillion gaucheries. No joke! There’s

nothing prim or diminutive about my belly.

Parts of conversation from one person, who has something original to say, can sometimes morph into a peculiar type of poetry. But it does take a skilled poet to set that natter into a frame. DeFreitas accomplishes this task in his poem She, Barkeep, to Him, Barfly. Both bartender and regular drinker are plausibly retired from their former professions. Here the bartender takes stock,

Fifty-cent vocab and a slacker’s gut,

you’d guzzle Newcastle `til you browned out

on the barstool you wore your cheek-prints into.

Ridiculous tipper! No, you’d never stiff me,

but Jesus, forty percent? Dude, you must’ve

wanted me more than the dark English stout

you’d gulp down to dial back your lovestruck fluster.

I gave you grief. You took it straight, no chaser,

never flinching from my ashtray trash-talk,

my moods as changeable as late October.

I miss you sometimes, bro. You weren’t a jerk.

Swift River Ballad serves as both the title poem and my favorite poem in this DeFreitas collection. Set in a honky-tonk type of bar, and written in pantoum form, it reads gritty as hell, and it’s lovely. A seemingly thrown in line: “Larry, that’s Butch’s kid, his wife just left him,” brings great power and enormous depth into an emotive setup. Consider this context,

A grit-voiced redhead staggers from cheap gin.

There’s a faint smell of sawdust and spent dreams:

Five or six local boys get high out back.

A grit-voiced redhead staggers from cheap gin:

Who’s gonna buy the lady another drink?

Five or six local boys get high out back:

Money is scarce and jobs are hard to come by.

Some guy buys Julianne another drink—

Larry, that’s Butch’s kid, his wife just left him…

Money is scarce and jobs are hard to come by:

I Fall to Pieces” plays on the old jukebox.

Like a comfortless man whose wife’s just left him,

A winter sky darkens above Swift River.

In DeFreitas’ poem, The Widow at Ninety, he deals with love, low expectations, and loss, not to mention a certain grim wisdom that comes with age. The elderly protagonist rattles off an old, sad story experienced by many women. But here the matter-of-factness detonates in the piece’s final line. The ambiguity says a lot, especially following a prideful breaking-out line. The actual venting of the story takes on high significance by giving meaning to desperate action. Note the multiple exclamation marks. These are the key lines,

I had to

learn how to pay the bills. I did it!

Would you like another cup of tea?

No trouble! Oh, I miss him—still!

He always did the shopping, not me.

He was a better cook than I was,

And believe you me, I’m no slouch!

Not once did he ever hit me or the kids.

Thomas DeFreitas speaks clearly in this collection of righteous poetry. It rings of lyrical truths. Honesty in poetry should not deter readership in these days of gathering darkness. And DeFreitas is nothing if not reverently honest.