We were late this month. A full week. Sure, there was some panic at first, then the disbelief and denial—how could this be?! But, finally, came acceptance, a calm cool understanding that whatever happened it would be okay.
And then it arrived! Right in our email box, waiting for us to notice. Our monthly installment of Reb Livingston’s poetry column, Crucial Rooster. Joy!
The relief was palpable. We’re thrilled to have Reb, accomplished poet and editor of No Tell Motel, here to fill our head with poetic goodness on a monthly basis. Oh, and all that stuff about acceptance and whatnot? Just between us, it was total bullshit.
Crucial Rooster: Poetry Column by Reb Livingston
I have this friend and every time I hear from this friend it’s the same story. So sorry he hasn’t written sooner, things have been “crazy” and he’ll write more soon. Of course he never writes more soon except to say that things are indeed still “crazy” and he’ll write more soon. He persists with this even though he’s quite aware that I’m the one with the little baby and several time consuming projects. Lately I’ve been responding bluntly, Whatever, you’re not as busy as me. It’s kind of like how my husband will point something out and remark, “That’s a big flag!” or “What a mess baby left in his diaper!” My reply is always a dismissive I’ve seen bigger.
Yes, I’m what they call a “treat” to be around.
As I write this I too am aware that you, dear reader, are also busy, possibly extremely busy, likely busier than me, yet making the time to read this column when you could be reading bigger, better columns. I will not try to explain or impress you with my busy-ness. I missed my deadline due to my own poor planning which makes this a week late and I am sorry for that.
Let me make it up to you. Let me introduce you to three authors with new books you are more than likely not familiar and will love once you read them. I write “authors” and not poets, because the first book is not a collection of poetry, but a novel. You didn’t know that I read novels, did you? Well, I do. I do when the novel has a poet as a main character and includes poems. Come to think of it since this author did write poems for the book, he is a poet. So there, let me introduce you to three poets.
Last summer I stumbled upon Roderick Maclean in the first issue of the literary magazine, Bullfight. I was supposed to review that issue for an online publication but never got around to it – not because I was too busy, no I was too ill with all day morning sickness. While I never wrote the review, I did read the magazine and between my nauseous moans and woes of whiny misery my side was splitting in giddiness from reading Maclean’s short story “A Capsule for Future Juniors.” In my last column, I wrote about the great service literary journals provided to readers looking to discover new authors. This is a perfect example. This was my first experience with Maclean’s work and if I hadn’t read his story in Bullfight, I would have never known I needed to read his new novel, Tropic/of/Cubicle -- (Spork Press, $14).
It’s a both humorous and tragic tale about a man working at a big corporate campus and responsible for caring for his ailing grandparents. His love interest is a wheel chair bound woman who comes to work dressed like Xena, Warrior Princess. There’s a mysterious poet leaving bizarre (yet insightful) poems around the office. There’s a sudden job dismissal. There’s a beast. There’s golfing. There’s unexpected twists. But this description tells you very little. I’m not telling you about the ways this novel presents people negotiating unnatural environments or making such living livable by evolving into characters or ways we give permission to express ourselves or how we deal with loss and disappointment or how we try so hard to blend in we disappear.
Another thing I haven’t told you yet, but will now, is how cool this book is physically. It’s hand-bound using hanging file folders “reclaimed” from corporate file cabinets and the title and author text on the spine is printed on office shipping labels. I’m a sucker for these unique and collectable tomes. Also, I enjoy sticking it to the man.
Tropic of Cubicle is one of those “be the first on your block to own.”
This next book is both a beauty and brains affair, it’s a sexy collections of poems and anyone who knows me knows how much I admire sex appeal in poetry. There’s much to admire in Amy King’s Antidotes for an Alibi, (BlazeVOX, $11) a recent Lambda Book Award finalist.
What makes these poems sexy? For starters they’re mysterious and surreal. This may be a turn off for folks who want everything spelled out but I don’t understand why anyone would desire that in poetry. Sometimes in bed I read my husband poems before we sleep (adorable, yes, I know). He’s an engineer and a practical sort and occasionally he voices frustration when he feels like he doesn’t know “what’s going on” in a poem. He voiced this frustration the other night when I read King’s “Editing Booth” in all its lushness:
My estrangement burns and falls away. / I mix it with dough as bread for the masses, / an antidote grain. They throw themselves / apart. If I were you, I would wait for me.
I reminded him that poems aren’t about finding the secret decoder ring that strings together the hidden meaning. Not every poem is supposed to be linear and obvious. Not instantly grasping a poem does not mean you’re dense. It also doesn’t mean the poem has no meaning or isn’t saying something important. From just the few lines above any reader can gleam the speaker’s despondence and guarded hope. Poems aren’t newspaper articles or appliance manuals. Expecting poems to read like such will no doubt bring disappointment. Poems are meant to transform and make something new and different with words. A good poem will never meet your expectations – it won’t go near your expectations. While the following might be clear and to the point, do we really want to read poems that sound like “Found my lover in bed with another woman / moving as if they were two pistons in a Chevy / Seeing it made me angry”? That’s an instant message, not a poem. Give me intrigue, give me something to ponder, like in King's “Theory of Games” that ends:
His gift is vital for fine-tuning the world / instead of re-creating it. As a result, / she makes a life with no invention / required. People love mythology / in equal parts where storied roads / seek newer lanes to delineate.
Poetry is hopeless. It has little practical value as far as society’s concerned. It won’t cure your baldness. It’s highly unlikely it’ll help you get you a job. There’s an off chance it’ll assist you getting laid but I wouldn’t suggest canceling your gym membership on that possibility since that’s still rather unlikely. We spend our days in offices, class rooms and homes, driving on freeways or riding on public transportation. Few lives are not filled with the mundane and routine. So when we read poems, let’s embrace the strange and unfamiliar.
The final book I’m going to discuss is Standard Schaefer’s Water & Power (Agincourt, $11.95). The poems in this book aren’t set in cubicles or urban settings, but in the more exotic backdrop of southern California. The title of this collection takes it name from the original film title Chinatown. Like both the movie and the setting, these are rugged poems full of an open bareness, brimming with a quiet seething of helplessness. In “Luster and Laurel Giffith Park Observatory” Schaefer writes:
the owl in his chest / east and sharp as K // dust, blanched and divided // she said, “Howdie, Ranger. Here’s my library card.” // they order the tomatoes in oil // he didn’t even try to understand / he read the subtitles // turned the wheel and pulled the crank / the frogs suffocated but the shoes were at last dry.
These poems delve into history of the landscape and speak disapproval of the tactics of corporations and government on both the land and powerless individual. In “The View From the Jet Propulsion Lab Through CIA Satellite” for example:
Hail bop, a floss-like light strobes the yolks --- // photons and placebos eating the placenta of outerspace / seem almost dignified against the kiss-my-ass hoodoo of desperadoes / who whupped the Filipino who got high on flower ballads / now standing on the shoulders of viruses / until they regain their chilling, technical virtues --- // pattern, mask, and ape
Schaefer’s poems are breathtaking and ambitiously take on “big picture” issues in an attempt to humanize the effects of greed and injustice. These poems have a clear social conscious and refuse to back down from their convictions.
If you need another reason to buy Water & Power, Schaefer is a very new parent (like just this week). Send your congratulations via a book purchase. Babies are expensive.
I hope after you read these books, dear reader, you’ll find I’ve made amends with my column tardiness. Stay busy, but not too busy. Make some time to write your neglected friends and family and of course, read some poems.
Until next month.