Rewak’s (The Right Taxi, 2012) latest collection showcases the work of a skilled poet near the peak of his powers.
The poet, a Jesuit priest, spent years as a university president, and readers could create a classics course by tracking down all the allusions in his exquisite verse. All the greats are here—Shakespeare, Blake, Sophocles, Wordsworth—filling and animating Rewak’s balanced lines. He also pays homage to more recent luminaries: A tribute to the late, great Ansel Adams, for example, praises the photographer’s ability to match weight with airiness: “All those mountains / with the tonnage of centuries / suddenly leap / in magic / how you’ve subverted / gravity to show us / the lightness of creation.” Rewak successfully conveys a similar tension in his own poetry. While he addresses subjects that are, by turns, serious and light, his gravitas is never ponderous, and his levity never lacks substance. On one page, he meditates on the old myth that Jesus crafted his own cross using the carpentry skills he learned from Joseph: “the home he built / stands on Golgotha / you could not know / how he would use / your gift.” Switching gears just a handful of pages later, the poet wonders at the meter an ant would use if he talked in verse: “He spoke, / at first, in accents Chaucerian—I sensed / a primordial de-bump…but then / changed to the chittering of a pious Pound.” Only a talented writer can pull off such radical shifts in topic and tone, and Rewak does it all in free verse that never devolves into the lazier cant of lesser stylists. Best of all, his poetry rewards rereading, as images that at first seem merely clever have a depth that only reveals itself the second or third time around. In a touching meditation on Psalm 46, he asks, “Forgive me, Lord, for being mundane.” A funny request, since Rewak never is.
Lurid imagery, squalid settings and redemptive epiphanies run riot in these vivid poems.
Morbid themes run deep in this collection, as forthrightly declared in “Poe Describing Me”: “This numbing, slow-moving self-ignorance runs through my veins. / Like embalming fluid being injected while my blood gushes into a sink.” Many of the lugubrious poems are set in the detritus of some unspecified personal or planetary apocalypse: “Back to the Future” surveys ruins where “Splinters of glass pop through each and every bare toe,” “God-given Situation” takes in another desolate tableau featuring “Maalox bottles packaged with barf bags. / An ant colony hired as full-time maids,” and “Nearly the End” imagines an eclipse that “left the world forever dark.” And ordinary life? In “Time-Bomb Rocky,” it’s a meaningless cycle of ritual niceties and ennui, of “Try[ing] not to belch out loud in front of the old lady’s mannerly kids” while “The clock still spins in invisible circles like helicopter blades” and “The determined time bomb of life leaves nothing but waste.” Relationships with the female figures that flit through the poems are evanescent or vampiric: “Tight leopard-skinned skirt. / Black sexy pumps. / Bit of a flirt. / …She’ll suck the life out of you with her deadly fangs,” promises “Her Deadly Fangs.” Yet amid all the gothic visions are a few incongruously heartfelt, even conventionally spiritual poems. In “Childless,” the prospect of adoption—“There’s no special blood for a loving child”—eases the anguish of a couple “willed by God to be without,” while “Thanksgiving” offers a prayer for “Giving our strengths to those who fear.” Donovan’s verse features lacerating metaphors that veer among lyricism, grit and the cynically prosaic, as in “Cold River”: “The bridge with moss-filled initials like a funeral home’s sign-in log.” His poems are so private—even cryptic—that it’s sometimes hard to find a way into them, but the strong imagery and the emotions they convey will linger.
Dark, enigmatic, depressive verse that’s often compelling.
In this poetry collection, Gillman (The Magic Ring, 2000) considers his father’s slow descent into dementia.
Gillman had a brilliant father who was an accomplished classical pianist and a distinguished mathematician known for his work in topology. But in the stark poems that make up this book, readers see the father’s confusion and weakness as Alzheimer’s steals his autonomy bit by bit. Even in the past, the two couldn’t always connect; music sometimes seemed like a barrier, part of the father’s autocratic distance. In “A House with Music in It, II,” the 12-year-old son tiptoes into the house where his father plays piano; shutting the door to his room, heprefers the radio and Chuck Berry. In the title poem, the narrator recalls how his father used to hum along while playing the piano, an indistinguishable drone: “One couldn’t tell / from listening to you drone / what piece it was, / all tuneless and the same.” Three poems engage with the haunting image of the parents’ twice-daily journey up and down stairs, something like divers: “Going down, / she has a rope, / tied to his belt, / wrapped around her waist,” which “will somehow stop him.” In one of the book’s most potent poems, Gillman sees his father, strapped upright in bed, “as if / fastened to / the piling of a dock” while the tide slowly rises, which powerfully conveys the slow, awful dread of waiting for someone to die. Sometimes, the poems edge into the prosaic, with too much explanation, more like a journal entry, perhaps: “It’s been hours / and I’m still angry / at what this brings back up: / how you imposed / your one right way / on everything we did.” Poems about connection appear as well. In “Requiem,” for example, the poet imagines lingering reverberations in the father’s music room, “lower and lower / till they have reached a place / ear can’t hear / but heart still knows.”
Rich, compelling lyric poetry that bores beneath the decorum of civilization, revealing the elementally human beneath.
Few writers are able to use juxtaposition and irony as frequently and consistently and with still-startling results as Johnson does in this penetrating debut. Like his most obvious, almost overshadowing, influence, James Dickey, Johnson accomplishes this through meticulously rendered detail, a knack for subjecting his characters to psychologically trying situations and an evocative sensuality that usually prefigures loss. Most ofhis major themes and techniques appear in the opening poem, in which the child narrator describes with disarmingly counterintuitive, yet accurate, metaphors the inexorable rise of floodwaters: “a puddle that grew wide on the kitchen floor then / covered it, absorbing the hall and climbing, / as an old man would, or a toddler, the steps.” Beset by diluvial apocalypse and the ceaseless cacophony of “the yipping, frantic dog,” Mamma frets instead over social obligation: “My god, Gardiner, the violin. We left Phoebe’s violin. / You have to go get it, Gardiner. It’s a rental.” Under such pressures, the father reacts instinctually and violently, “raising the window, / the dog struggling in his hands, squeaking and gnashing at him” before “flinging the dog out”—a shockingly vicious move that nevertheless re-establishes calmness. Most of the remaining poems play on variations of these same themes, whether the context is a pas de deux between a rattlesnake and the startled hunter who decapitates him, then weeps, or the young spectator who can’t bear to watch the eroticized sawing-in-half of the magician’s assistant. Whoever they are—man, woman, child, Shakespearean character or Audubon’s gifted but overlooked assistant—Johnson’s narrators are insightful, quietly desperate, honest and driven by wild appetites. For instance, in an appealing panegyric to cigarettes, one narrator concludes, “I’m no more addicted than a word to its meaning. / Saying you’re addicted makes it sound like / you don’t want one. / But I do. / I want every one. / Every one I can get.” Johnson’s poems always sound as if they’re telling the truths that we can’t usually bring ourselves to admit. Ultimately, it is both high praise and mild criticism to note how strong the Dickey influence is here, for in the best of these poems, Johnson rises to such heights, but his own distinct voice never fully emerges. Even so, this is one debut not to be missed.
Free-wheeling yet carefully wrought, this free verse collection is a joyful reminder that, at its best, poetry is music.
Alberts’ jazz-soaked debut jukes and jives in unfettered celebration of the musicality of poetry. When his scat-singing, finger-snapping narrators exclaim, “Rhythm just naturally beats / All the hell right out of me,” it is no lamentation but a sly proclamation of the heavenliness of a strong, interesting beat. Good poetry, he suggests, is at least as much for the body as the mind and more for the ear than the eye. Thus, deathbed reflection is punctuated by onomatopoeia—“When the film of your life runs out / When the screen glares white / When the film strip’s tail end / slaps, slaps, slaps”—and melody itself becomes a bodyto be exploited for musical effect: “Inside her rib-joints start a rattle, / like a snare, stick-stuck-staccato.” Not surprisingly, then, Alberts’ poems take a fully embodied, forward-moving perspective. In Adam and Eve, he sees not regret and original sin but other, more exciting firsts: “So ribs were the rub ’til one night in the tub / while scrubbing each other, errr, randomly, / they both started acting, umm, randily. // Now bed springs never rest.” This playful, life-affirming sensuality reappears in poems like “You Will Need a Pencil Today” and “Bacon ’n Eggs.” Sex, though, is only one type of play, a subject this appropriately titled collection takes seriously. Play, for Alberts, is a mindset and a way of interacting with the world. His narrators play with form, with sounds and with the boundaries of time and space. When, in play, a ball is hit, “the ball will arc / out of the field of play / lost to the game, to the players. / Just gone,” just as happened to Roethke that fateful day when he “Dove into a swimming pool in 1963 / And came right back up. / Left only his body behind.” Play can even become the organizing principle in making sense of tragedy, as Alberts demonstrates in the poignant “War Games.”The sheer fun of Alberts’ poetry, coupled with its virtuosity, may occasionally distract readers from the poetry’s deeper currents, but they’ll have no problem catching the rhythm.