Review of LUNCH POEMS by MARK YOUNG and DELTA BLUES by SKIP FOX and LUNCH POEMS by Mark Young
Reviews by EILEEN TABIOS
So-called perfection in poetry doesn’t interest me. Having said that, when I first read this poem in Mark Young’s chap Lunch Poems (dedicated to Frank O’Hara of course), I reacted with, “This is as perfect as a poem can be!” Here’s (one of) my definition(s) of a “perfect poem”:
Meanwhile, at the Cancer Screening Clinic
Some days the sky
is full of litigation
& on other days
it rains, just like it’s
meant to except
there are no clouds.
Precipitation is such
an ugly word, not
one I’d keep in my vocabulary unless
I had a handbag to go
with it, deep enough
to lose my keys &
credit cards & all
subsequent means of
getting home, or an off-
the shoulder dress, or a
je ne sais quoi attitude
that tastes like pretzels.
You know, as soon as I typed out that poem, I can’t recall why, a week or so earlier, I thought it a perfect poem. Its strengths are obvious: the surprising and pleasing twists, the leap of a link between the title and the text, … so on. But what I’m trying to capture enough to articulate is that initial reaction — a sense of nailing something into truism, a sense that the author was in some zone and this poem spurted out whole….things that feel true at the time and become immanent when one tries to lock them into description.
Of course, being a bit perverse, as soon as I stumble across a poem that compels me to call it perfect, I read its company, the entirety of the chap, again looking for something like a false note. I don’t find one.
What I do find is the difference in attitude between what I recollect of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and Young’s — the latter is more sober. (I’m not sure as I write this that I recall O’Hara’s accurately but) I want to say O’Hara’s is more youthful and Young’s is more … old. Well, O’Hara was younger when he wrote his Lunch Poems, after all. But I think Young’s is keyed more to certain political down-ers of the author’s time, hence a poem like “8/9/07” that begins
Having to step
over the urine stream
left by a just-passed
cattle truck causes
me to lose my
right at the moment
when I was about
to comprehend the
intricacies of the effect
of subprime mortages
on the economy of
the United States.
Then, as soon as I typed the above, I realize I have little interest in dissecting the chap as a whole. I just want to enjoy the initial discovery: a perfect poem.
And it is in that mood that I, by happenstance, turned next to Skip Fox’s Delta Blues. Well, what do you know? Two in a row! I also find in Fox’s latest a “perfect poem,” to wit:
You will work on a single manuscript in near silence for years during the course of which you will realize your best work, brilliant and exhilating. It will be as though you’ve never read before. After sanding every appositive and polishing each comma, you will send it to the finest English-language literary publisher in the world, a man of profound understanding and exquisite tastes who funds the press out of his rear pocket, stuffed with a staggering fortune in steel. He will be the only person capable of seeing your work for what it is on the first pass. While reading your manuscript one long summer afternoon, “Here it is! Here it is!” will be heard coming, at approximately half-hour intervals, from his second story office, the “at last!” unnecessary, implied in his exclamations’ very torque. After each burst, his wife, twenty-four years his junior, lounging by the pool below, will briefly wince and frown from beneath her canted cartwheel. Yet each time, after initial signs of irritation, a secret smile will steal across the shadow of her face as she remembers the soft hands of the assassin, who the next day will climb the staircase sometime between one and two in the afternoon, and do what he was paid to do while she’s visiting her sick aunt in Pittsburgh. Occasionally she sets down her shitty romance and dreams of a near future when she may fully indulge her tastes for casinos and young men without fear of discovery. Her “at last” is a breeze, nearly articulate, sliding over the upper reaches of her face.
The next afternoon you will be waiting for your new publisher’s second call, the first having excited you to “the taproot of [your] being,” re-convincing you of life’s worth, sustaining your hope humandkind, and provisionally staying the unsteady hand of your suicide. The following day as well you will wait by the phone. And the next. The next. All is silent. Adieu.
And as I consider Fox’s poem, I realize why Young and Fox are achieving some truly wonderful poems: both possess the mental suppleness required to address complexities without being overwhelmed, before proceeding forward to write with admirable deftness.
Not all poems they write strike me in this way. For example, I very much enjoyed the following poem by Fox but would consider it more one-note than “Sortilege”:
Blue Note: A Valentine for the New Millenium
(John Wayne delivery, gruff & bemused)
A kiss is just a kiss
But just remember this,
Everytime you kiss her, Bud,
Well … you’ll be tasting my dick.
And yet that poem has a greater power when considered part of the whole of Delta Blues. Which is to say Skip Fox’s book deserves a more in-depth look than this write-up. But, for now, I just want to express my appreciation for two perfect poems I found in some random reading. Poems from two wise men writing so masterfully so that they occasionally come up with purrrfect gems, all the while making it all look easy…