GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews, viz “Random Diptych”
earthquake came to harlem by Jackie Sheeler
(NYQ Books, New York, 2010)
Glass is Really a Liquid by Bruce Covey
(No Tell Books, Reston, VA, 2010)
[Editor’s Note: For “Random Diptych”, three poet-critics accepted my invitation to review two books together, with such books chosen at random from GR’s available review copies. “Random Diptych” presents a special challenge as, in addition to reviewing the individual book, the review also must read each book in the company of the other. Here is the result from Genevieve Kaplan.]
“how perfectly / The woman hangs from her noose in the garden” (Sheeler 22)
“I do not expect that many readers will want to be masochistic enough to want to read the book in order from cover to cover” (Covey 97)
At first glance, earthquake came to harlem and Glass is Really a Liquid appear disparate—the sepia-toned tilted roller coasters, buildings, and A-train of Jackie Sheeler’s volume contrast with blurred candy-pink and red cover of Bruce Covey’s book. But closer inspection reveals similarities: the fourth book for both authors, these collections of poetry are deliberate, purposeful, and affecting.
Sheeler’s narrative vignettes in earthquake came to harlem capture the struggles and tragedies of everyday urban life, mulling over characters like Russell, who “lives in his wheelchair on my street,” “magic-marking each block letter: / HOMELESS—PLEASE HELP” (18); the Feldsteins, who “have a colic baby” (23); or George who “shot up some Red Tape dope / and passed out on the shooting gallery floor” (96). Acutely observational, the work here presents an affecting picture of urban living, where everyone is interconnected at least by proximity, if not race or class. As “Twelve people on died on the lower east side that weekend, / overdosed” (97), Sheeler suggests that tragedy does not merely affect the individual. After all, “God made AIDS” and “God made the Trade Center / because he needed a place to watch the city / over good food late at night with rich companions / and a place to aim his flaming planes” (24); in the great web of life, everyone is to blame and everyone participates, even the narrator herself. In the prose poem “Two in the Morning” the narrator muses, “If I never took off my sunglasses maybe he wouldn’t be robbing me now” (98). Sheeler’s candid depictions of difficult subjects including homelessness, domestic violence, jail, hospitalization, poverty, sex, or suicide are memorable and moving. Readers will never forget reading a poem like “Bensonhurst, 1971” an uncomfortably straightforward account of brutal rape that ends in a sigh: “It was Brooklyn” (46).
Covey’s poems, too, are often daily and observational, contemplating, for example, “Right now people…finding what they need in the warehouse” (63), or noting that “An airplane is such an awkward and untidy thing / In disharmony with the runway down which it cracks” (123). His poems are dense lyrics, frequently frenetic. “Because it jitters its nervous / It needs a glass of cranberry it needs two / Solid proteins,” Covey writes in “Kneeded That” (15). And, in “Hermes,” he overwhelms readers with storefront propaganda: “Surprise! Discover discover discover classic hand-folded / Vermillion triangles, segments digesting their sparkles” (40). Covey’s linguistic energies permeate the book, his intensities rendered through both style and subject matter. One must “unfold the napkin to discover the pistol in the bathroom” (30), and it turns out that “The bird that whistles in your sugar maple / Is a fraud” (72); things are almost never what they seem. The author’s quick wit and tongue-in cheek language—in phrases like “In Like an Iamb & Out Like a Line” (65) or “A parcel in a pear tree…” (80)—suggest to readers that casual humor may be the best defense against the difficulties of living.
The careful organization of these books, too, adds to the power of their content. Covey’s volume is divided into six subtitled sections of fourteen poems each, every one ending with a series of “Notes.” The charts and visual poems in “Four: Unfulfilled Crossword” remind us of the scientifically-influenced subject matter running through Glass Is Really a Liquid. As his chart-poem “Mineral” lists words including “various,” “wedding,” “forbidden,” “symmetry,” “burning,” “vinyl,” and “titanium” (92), readers are invited to invent our own web of connections between these concepts. Section “Five: Urge” ends in a list of questions including “5.9 Who leaves her comfy chair in support of public safety? / 5.10 Whose firewater is cramped and shady?” and “5.14 Deeper cuts, sugar, come into my heart?” (120), offering a sort of tonal recap of the poems we’ve just read.
Sheeler’s four sections in earthquake came to harlem are more narratively framed, with the subtitles “The Maker,” “Diorama,” “Solo,” and “My Enemy.” The book follows a subtle progression from outside observations—of the world, of the neighborhood, of others—to introspection. Even while the “I” of the narrator is present early in the book, the first person becomes more prominent in the second half of the volume, participating in and driving poems like “Getting Everything I Did & Didn’t Want” (68) or recapping an uncomfortable dinner in “At Daiuto’s” (71): “I asked her, ‘Is this a date?’ / while I wrestled with the bento box, an embarrassment of food / across from her vegan rice and salad” (71).
Reading the collections, we can’t help but know that each poet is achieving what she or he set out to do. Neither book lets you forget its contents; the haunting subjects and images these authors explore remain long after the book has been set down. While it would be an oversimplification to say that Sheeler’s and Covey’s work only examines dark things—there is happiness in these poems, too, and humor, and interesting language, and formal play—what really stands out is the emotional heft of these volumes. Even when we think the poems might lead us somewhere comforting, “scenes Scenes scenes repeat Repeat broken” (Sheeler 22), “A hollowed-out cantaloupe / A hollowed-out doorknob” turns into “A hollowed-out bullet” (Covey 85), and it turns out we’ve come to expect nothing less.
Genevieve Kaplan lives and writes in Southern California. Her book, In the ice house, won the A Room of Her Own Foundation To the Lighthouse poetry prize and is available from Red Hen Press. Please visit her online at The Forest and The Trees.