A lot of appalling characters populate these poems: the photographer who keeps a neglected rabbit in a wire cage as a prop for his young subjects to hold, the butcher who has for 30 years “tallied the costs of cutting and / wrapping freezer beef and has never / smiled,” and a 10-year-old boy who sexually assaults a younger girl in a barn. Of his family the author remarks, “I guess I believed in them. I guess if you’d asked me / I’d have said they were fine people”—despite the casual racism and various other forms of animus they display. Ochester’s style is straightforward and unadorned; the most successful moments occur in poems like “Pocahontas,” when he examines the darkest recesses of human nature. Less compelling are the frequent references to his own vocation as a poet, as in the tediously titled “At the Poetry Reading.” Malaise follows him around, even on vacation: in “Cooking in Key West,” the author is moved to tears upon seeing a fit, gay couple on the beach, as he remembers a young man whose parents buried him in an unmarked grave (“sans shrimp, / sans radicchio, sans everything”) because he died of AIDS. Despite all the indictments he hands out, Ochester manages to avoid sounding preachy—he sums things up pretty well when he advises, “don’t judge / but if you must judge, / forgive.”
Frequently grim, but worth examining.