Sunday, January 18, 2015

Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass

by Jeff Kass
Dzanc Books, 2011
soft cover, 250 pages, $9.99

At risk of offending New Critics from the 1930s, it is easy to venture that Jeff Kass intended Knuckleheads for the average guy. There may be an outside chance that this collection of short fiction may reach the women who love these average guys, but the percentages might be low. To glean as much as possible from Kass's pages, one must enjoy the detailed depiction of sinew surrounding a scapula or clavicle tearing and popping, repeatedly. The reader should identify with excess sweat, teeth grinding frustration, desire with nowhere to go, half-nelson and noogie stupidity, not to mention a genuine desire to find acceptance. Above all else, it is this latter emotion that most pervades Kass's collection.

Whether it is the middle and high school subterranean boys of "Basements," or the middle aged yearners of "Mylar Man," "Drowning Superman" and "The Naked Guy Is Dead," Kass depicts males who hover on the periphery, yearning for acceptance. The awkward teen boys of "Basements," collectively scouring their neighborhood for adventure through pool hopping, poker, turntables, make out sessions, always have an eye on whether or not they fit. In a genuine way, Kass's characters and narrators, especially, are both inside and outside simultaneously. It is an angst often ascribed to teen boys, as if some miracle of community belonging happens after the age of 20. It doesn't, and to Kass's credit, he depicts middle aged characters still pedaling through a cul-de-sac of insecurity and desire, youthful anxieties more accepted than resolved.

In "Mylar Man," Kass's late-30s protagonist yearns for his brother's wife. The brother in question is an unemployed, marginally schizoid man who collects balloon rubbish. His internet blogging, environmental crusading world is a sad depiction of youthful idealism gone horribly wrong. The narrator has loved Mylar Man's–the "Old Goat," as he calls him–wife since high school. Kass manages to link that youthful yearning with the incomplete dissatisfactions many middle aged men face, simultaneously making a mockery of and paean to such desires. The consummation leads nowhere but back to those sweaty weight lifting benches of middle school basements.

"Drowning Superman" and "The Naked Guy Is Dead" each depict the alienation and anxieties of marriage in such a way as to capture a kid trapped in a middle aged man's disappointment. The stories, however, do not disappoint. In "Drowning Superman," Kass's protagonist drags around beach blankets, books and a rubber coated Superman statuette on a Martha's Vineyard vacation. The statuette provides the only pleasant shared time between Jay and Calista. They would throw it into the pool and watch their son Jesse dive for it. There is more than a little bit of the baseball card and comic book collecting boy in Jay bubbling up to the surface. When he has to dive deep to find this toy, lost in a Vineyard pond, the parallels between father and son surface. So, too, in "The Naked Guy Is Dead"; only, in that story, it is the protagonist's own innocence and hope sinking to the bottom of an impenetrable pond. Husband and wife have only one tragedy and one innocent memory left to provide them they buoyancy they need.

No matter what the age of boy or man Kass depicts, stylistically this fiction is still tethered to his natural home: slam poetry. There is a breathless quality in all these depictions of buried desires and ranch houses and wrestling matches where even winning is not enough. There is a restlessness and angst which few men openly depict. The familiar scenes of locker rooms, golf courses, blacktop four squares games at recess and sneaking out at night will continue to resonate into this new century. Whether it is a gearhead in the back of English class or a befuddled, middle aged man trying to figure out how he arrived at this stage in life, Kass's Knuckleheads is a book which will prove to be as difficult to put down as the remote. Why? Much like the elusive Fred Exley, Kass captures something inherently grungy, bumbling and altogether honest about what it means to be an American male.

The Light Between by Terry Blackhawk

The Light Between
by Terry Blackhawk
Wayne State University Press, 2012
soft cover, 104 pages, $15.95

Elegiac, thoughtful, keenly aware of environment, playful. These are just a sprinkling of the words which come to mind regarding Terry Blackhawk's masterful collection of poems, The Light Between. Divorce is another word, a word linked to the elegiac. Rather than praising the lost marriage, rather than elegizing that or the man, Blackhawk manages to praise and elevate the awareness of loss, the keen return to the senses, the reawakened awareness of life's fragile fabric. In the midst of all this, there is plenty of room for wordplay.

Assonance and alliteration, internal rhyme, enjambment, these elements of Blackhawk's lines pull the reader along, or pause him, based on the patterns of thought-breaths the writer inscribes. Word play, too, helps wind up the momentum. A pattern emerges: Blackhawk juxtaposing homonyms, prefixes and suffixes, roots. The effect is a gallop with occasional jarring misstep or sharp rock to call attention to the finer detail. In "Torque Dancer," "what can / the opposable thumb oppose? His whole / body's in opposition" (Blackhawk 61). Three uses of this same word call attention to that creation of contrast in both dancer and writer. When describing concerns about tinnitus, Blackhawk's doctor claims it to be "a phantom phenomenon–lost hearing / reminding the hearer of itself–lost sounds / trying to make themselves heard" (32). The argument is circular and dizzying, much like the cochlea or "Chambered Nautilus" of the title. Best of all, these musical notes spin and swirl the tone of each poem, evoking an inner mysticism or uplifting praise in even the most mundane. Who knew a hearing test would lead back through a spiraled line of reference, landing on chambered shells, crickets, delicate evenings, a young child, memories of a lost marriage?

Thematically, a sense of loss pervades this book and renews the wells of hope. Despite the agony, there is a beauty to be found in empty bedsheets, in the space between the signified and the signifier. In "Belle Isle Solitary: New Year's Eve," Blackhawk's narrator walks alone, observing the river, a kayaker, a freighter, ice, delighting in the surprise beauty of a day on earth. It is a solitary activity, and there is a "you" with whom the poet wants to share. It is both the reader and the absent life partner alluded to in the beginning of the book's cycle. It is her other, dialogic half and Medea's Jason, missing in action, run off with a princess. The wistfulness of it all, contained within and spilling from the poet, well, "I call it mi vida, / even this loneliness, even if I carry / only half a song" (Blackhawk 42).

In "Lot's Wife" the wistful becomes more resentful and coarse with anger. The pillar of salt provides a nice double entendre, melding Biblical allusion with desire: "Drop by drop, grain by // relentless grain, salt / trickles down my corroded / breasts and thighs" (Blackhawk 55). Decay and loss is still the pervading theme, the devouring sentiment, even as needs persist. Goals, once seemingly so simple to achieve, evade our grasp, and "I've no magic / to turn mirage to marriage / again" (Blackhawk 55). By linking mirage and marriage through alliteration and consonance and spelling, the notion of illusion rings out. And how is it, then, that we (re)build relationships? It is disturbing at closer examination: the devastating desire for union which transforms one to salt, all in pursuit of a shimmering, unobtainable haze on the horizon. It is youthful idealism; "Once I believed in / the sweetness of salt. // Now all I know is its burn, / its millions of tiny flames" (Blackhawk 56). It is an all consuming pain, and it is enough to make one want to turn toward the four noble truths.

Thankfully, Blackhawk's poems are filled with the renewal possible in life. The natural world, the birds and ever renewing life cycles which surround us, provide the hope of simply what is. Blackhawk allows those truths into her heart, and those truths seep through the poems reassuringly. "How soft / And suggestible we are, to let the mere notion / Of a thing tremble in us" (Blackhawk 77). And how vulnerable we are to allow ourselves to actually believe in our own creation, our own notions and desires. In the end, Blackhawk returns to the green canopy of trees, to the birds and the breeze. There, in the natural world, in "the nothing that is" (Stevens), lies a no-mind renewal. There, "Beyond the margin of trees, / clouds carry our names" (Blackhawk 85). That ethereal truth, ever slipping away as we observe it, might just be enough.

Elegy for the Floater by Teresa Carson

In the spirit of turning over new leaves for the new year, I am going to try and be more regular with postings.  For the next few weeks, this will include posting stuff I have which has been collecting dust.  Why not put it out there, right?  I'll kick this off with a review of what is a very powerful book of poetry.

Elegy for the Floater
by Teresa Carson
Cavankerry Press, 2008
soft cover, 84 pages, $12.80

Teresa Carson's Elegy for the Floater is a collection of poetry at once raw and refined.  It is brutally gentle, a caress with broken bottles, a kiss of pavement.  The paradoxical contrast of it all is best captured in her poem "I Made Fifty."  Cataloging a list of Carson's potentially fatal choices during her years of risk, she elicits a sort of survivor's guilt from the grand scheme of her early life. The pall of her older brother's suicide hangs over everything, and he never had a chance to reinvent himself.  The poet did.

Long after reading this collection, it will be difficult to shake the catalog of images surrounding Carson's brother, Joe.  He was afflicted with "chronic psychophrania. . . . / stank, saved bottles of pee, / kept getting arrested. . . . / [and] looked like he slept / under cardboard, on subway grates" (Carson 11).  He committed suicide by jumping off of a bridge with chains wrapped around him, chains weighted down by cinder blocks.  He was a fan of Houdini, but Joe never could escape.

While these poems catalog a variety of experiences in Carson's life, it is the collection, as a whole, which becomes the elegy for Joe.  The collection contains praise and love and wistful nostalgia for an epoch of Carson's life which was fraught, undoubtedly, with sorrow, anguish and elation.  There was the "Summer 1969" freedom of joining "runaways who squatted / in Lower East Side buildings, panhandled / by subway stairs, walked barefoot on hot sidewalks" (Carson 29).  The illusory, hippie dream is immediately shattered in the subsequent poems which detail the systematic ways a late-20s, married drifter/addict rapes the 15-year-old, runaway Carson.  The darkness and the light intermingle.

The wild freedom of Carson's youth has an edge worthy of shared shelf space with the darkest visions of Lou Reed's Velvet Underground or Jim Carroll's twisted Catholic boy.  Carson writes that her "Catholic-school uniform excited him," her predator "boyfriend," that is.  "He'd pick me up from school, drive to secluded places–like the deserted strip / under the Turnpike extension or woods in Staten Island. / Afterwards he'd drop me off two blocks from Belmont–I didn't tell him / exactly where I lived" (Carson 34).  Those lines from "Tramp" detail a mix of self-awareness, shame and abuse that live vividly in the poet's present some 40 years later.  Her youth was filled with a risk-taking freedom borne of neglect.

The youngest child of 10, a father living full time with his girlfriend, a mother ravaged by years of child-rearing, neglect and emotional abuse, a schizoid older brother wandering the streets, Carson portrays a 15-year-old self who, yes, is legally liberated.  However, that liberation has come with a price: "Large holes / in walls, no furniture, unclean, / not much to eat in house, / burns paper in the toilet bowl / to keep the bathroom warm" (Carson 46).  She can risk everything because everything has derailed already.  Carson's home unravels, and her clinical renderings of these memories add to an overall mosaic image of a familiar splintering.  It is a wonder that Carson made 50, true, or that her brother, Joe, lived as long as he did.

Despite the brutality, there is a poignant delicacy to these poems and memories.  Like the way a diamond is forged through the extreme pressure of adversity, Carson's poems are forged without fear.  Whether taking on workplace gender discrimination as a phone installer in the '70s or examining the autopsy report of her brother's suicide, Carson's pen shies away from nothing.  That lack of fear allows her to burnish words, to polish sentences and make beautiful what might otherwise be horrifying to examine.  Carson leads the reader into a story that begs to be heard, that commands attention and does not let go.  Only on the final page do these words appear: "Rest quietly, my brother" (Carson 96).  Only then is the requiem complete.