Prison Reviews of my Poems?

Just before the pandemic shutdown, I visited my friend in federal prison.  A couple weeks before that, I’d sent him a copy of my debut poetry collection Yearnful Raves, along with some other books.  Check this out:  I’m standing at the guard box in the visiting room when he strides through the prisoner’s door, and before we even get to the one allowed hug he’s saying, “Man, take this the right way, we liked your novel and your stories, all good, but these poems, that’s your sweet spot, man!”

We took our side-by-side plastic seats and he continued, frankly blowing my mind.  He said (paraphrasing), “I went around showing off the book and guys were like, poems?  I told ‘em they were by the fellow who sends us books, so they were like, okay, show me one.  The ones about your dogs?  Guys went, ‘That’s some truth.’  And a half dozen brothers, I wish you could have seen them debating this one poem.  It’s the one where the space aliens are trying to figure out how to conquer us and they hit on the idea of color?  One guy says, ‘This is about black power!’  Another frowns at him, says, ‘No, it’s the power of words, man.  It’s how just little words can mess with your mind.’  They went at it for I’m not kidding a half hour, and they were still talking about it at chow.  That poem about your brother, that was killer, man.  Guys sobbed reading that! Things you can’t fix in your family, they know what that is.”

I’m sitting in this concrete block visiting room bowled over by the whole idea, prison inmates grooving on my poems?  Anybody’s poems, for that matter.  And then a letter arrives this week from my friend.  He’s included hand-written notes from a couple of his pals that read like reviews of the poems.  He swore he didn’t ask for them, they just wanted to tell me.  So here they are, my favorite reviews ever:

Dear Sir – I want to start this off by clarifying very emphatically that I know NOTHING about poetry…unless Dr. Seuss counts (?) I recently was given the opportunity to read your collection of poetry.  I enjoyed your work.  I must specifically address two of your pieces…your work on the subject of picking blackberries and the lament of crawling under a house to retrieve a dog were fantastic.  The way you “painted” both of these experiences took me back to similar situations from my youth.  I will fault you for having me fixate on blackberry cobbler for the remainder of the day…and going to sleep with the reminder of a long passed hunting dog.  Thank you.  I look forward to your future work.  Respectfully, _________

4 STARS! 

This author does a fantastic job mixing in seemingly humorous concepts with melancholic affirmations of what it means to be human.  The most fascinating of the entries is “Weekend Daddy” on page 12.  Though only eleven lines, it paints a picture that is laughable and yet all too realistic in its portrayal of what must be the titular character’s living situation.  One can readily imagine and “see” the home, and the feelings that come with this flood the mind like New Orleans during Katrina.  It’s a visceral torrent of emotion…all within eleven lines.

Another great example is “Alzheimer’s Poem” on page 26.  Hauntingly beautiful and poetic are the only words I can think of to express the emotions brought forth by this one.

My favorite, despite my feelings about the former ones, is “Don’t Let This Happen to You.” The message is clear and the warning simple.  Through its journeys from present to past and back to future aren’t the most illustrative present in the book, they provide a much needed context for the reader.  This one pulls at the heart strings and plucks at the minor chords guaranteed to leave you wondering what happens next.  Sadly, there is no next, and that means something in and of itself.  From start to finish, this one delivers on the aforementioned concepts and affirmations.

I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Yearnful Raves even if poetry isn’t your thing.  The three above make it worth the price.  ______________________

One thing about writing, it’s all messages in a bottle.  You hope something you wrote will touch somebody, and you’re grateful for any sign.  My friend and his pals clearly get that.  Locked up and in so many cases forgotten, their whole existence is like that, books nobody reads.  So, as you might imagine, I will cherish these notes.  Only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those guys were debating that poem! And another thing, consider the generosity of these men, currently in their 50th day of unit lockdown for coronavirus. They knew it would matter, cared to reach out, took the time. They have nothing, but they have this. Thank you, gentlemen.

I Hear America Singing (the Blues)

An appreciation of Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line

On April Fool’s Day 1996, my bride of exactly one day and I climbed into my little Ford Probe in upstate New York and headed west on a yearlong honeymoon, gigging as traveling occupational therapists.  We lived in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Raleigh, North Carolina for 3-4 month engagements at nursing homes.  On weekends we explored the surrounding area and in between gigs for weeks at a time we meandered across the American landscape and back again.  What we learned on that long sojourn changed us and has stayed with us ever since.  We drove and hiked and swam and flew and marveled at and studied this whole wide continent.  In our work, we got to know people of every ethnic and racial background, people who were indigent and people who were wealthy, all of them broken and seeking healing at our hands.  On our travels, we saw more of the same, but also began to imagine the landscape itself as a fantastically varied and torn, sometimes even ruined, expanse.  But one that seemed, let me be maudlin here for a minute, to have a heartbeat and a soulful yearning to heal itself, to explain us in some way, to shape itself into a whole where we might fit. 

Here’s an example.  We were headed back East, crossing the broad and unpeopled plains of Wyoming, and arrived late one night in a town called Green River.  The next morning I woke up, stepped outside my door at the back of the hotel, and nearly fell over in the shadow of a looming moonscape we hadn’t known was there.  This sort of thing happened over and over on our yearlong journey.  The continent’s shocking presence insisting we attend.  I say all this as an introduction to the photographer who made this picture. 

Joshua Dudley Greer – Green River, Wyoming
in his book of photographs Somewhere Along the Line

I saw it today in a review of his new book, and instantly zoomed back to that moment in the back of that hotel, coffee spilling from my cup. 

Joshua Dudley Greer, the review says, spent a year doing what we did, minus the therapy gigs but plus a genius eye for the beautiful, harsh and puzzling truths one finds along the highways of America.  You can see more of his pictures just by Googling, but I’d recommend you do what I just did, and purchase his book Somewhere Along the Line.  Every picture, as Rod Stewart sang, tells a story, but these do way more than that.  They speak directly to that troubling, inspiring experience Chris and I shared on our yearlong honeymoon.  They throw you up against the landscape, the individuals who – like us – try to make sense of it, make use of it, find themselves in it.  They hit hard at the ways we’ve uglified it, yet they sing of the ways it resists degradation, at how it shapes what we do and who we are, despite ourselves.

I’m rambling, and I apologize for that.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do in coming to grips with this trip taken nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Greer’s photographs can help, I think.  Not as nostalgic travelogue, but as a Whitmanic yawp that says it’s all still out here, it’s all still just as profound and insistent as you found it.  What have we done to ourselves, to our land; what is it doing to us?  Come see.  You’ll be better for it.

By the way, the moving Washington Post review by Kenneth Dickerman that turned me on to this book is here.