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, _________
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.