Poetry Roundup, Part One:

He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices – Stephen S. Mills
(Sibling Rivalry Press)

The Horizontal Poet – Jan Steckel (Zeitgeist Press)

Takaaki: A Romance – Eric Norris (Square Circle Press)

Life Through Broken Pens – Walter Beck (Writing Knights
Press)

As April is National Poetry Month, I couldn’t think of any
more fitting time to catch up on some marvelous volumes and chapbooks of poetry
that have been stacking up on my shelves. My regular readers know how much I
love and envy poets and their work, and the four in this first of two Poetry
Roundups are no exception.

First up, we have Stephen S. Mills with his latest Sibling
Rivalry release, “He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices.” This stunning
collection of sharp imagery and dangerous conceptualizations is separated into
three parts. The first has no theme as discernable as the second and third, but
is representative of Mills in that they juxtapose personal milestones and
newsworthy events, such as “Fisting You for the First Time on the Day ‘Don’t
Ask, Don’t Tell’ is Repealed.” The only place DADT is specifically mentioned is
the title, but references to the soldier’s life are obvious when talking about
fists, and Mills’ description of the act itself is nothing short of moving. The
second part is a song cycle that reconciles American poet Reginald Shepherd and
American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and the third is a series of poems about
porn star turned hired killer Edmon Vardanyan. Mills’ talent lies in his
ability to distill the horror of gossip, current events and bad news and focus
it into a reflection of the community which produces it. It’s simultaneously
reductive and illuminating, but be warned that this is serious stuff. Sometimes
he leavens the mix with (very dark) humor, but the work is edgy, nervous, and
skitteringly brilliant, as in “Iranian Boys Hanged for Sodomy, July 2005” in
which the narrator keeps the article and photograph of that execution: 

                        “We
let the picture drift around/the apartment like an omen/

                        that
will one day make perfect/sense. Some mornings I stick it/

                        on
the bathroom mirror before/you shave, the next you have it/

                        on
the fridge or tucked inside/my
O’Hara Collected. Some nights/

                        I
slip it in a shoebox marked/’private’ and forget we ever cut it/

                        out,
but by the following evening/it’s under our mattress as

                        we
make love.”

 This story also shows up in “Against Our Better Judgment We
Plan a Trip to Iran,” which sees the narrator again making a personal
connection to a newsworthy event—to consume it, swallow it whole and repeat it,
fully digested in a different voice. Here’s hoping Mills never loses any of his
voices. 

In the Lambda Literary Award nominated “The Horizontal
Poet”, Jan Steckel’s approach may be more conventional but is no less interesting.
A retired pediatrician and a bisexual and disabled person’s rights activist,
Steckel’s art is, in part, formed from the medical field with all its messy
bodily functions and its peculiar gallows humor (“Swallowing Flies,” “Cancer
and the Man,” “Charity After the Hurricane,” and “The White Hospital” among
others). Steckel is no one trick pony, but the frankness and pragmatism of
medical practitioners pervades even those poems not strictly about the
profession. Water, both cleansing and menacing, also appears frequently in her
work—again, no surprise from a doctor—but Steckel refuses to be categorized.
She takes on a variety of subjects, from an out of control party (“East Oakland
New Year’s”) to topless bars (“The Naked and the Dread”) to social networking
(“MyDeathSpace.com”), all with ease of expression and keen observation. But
nowhere is she more contrary and activist than the short but powerful title
piece, “The Horizontal Poet.”

                        “You
can’t put your mat there,” said the nice lady.

                        “That’s
for handicapped people.”

                        But
I’d been promised I could lie down

                        When
I agreed to read.

                        “How
about there?” I asked.

                        “Oh
no,” she gasped, “not there.

                        “We’re
filming. You’d be in the picture.”

                        “God
forbid,” I muttered, grinning evilly,

                        “that
a disabled person should appear

                        in
any of the pictures.”

Steckel is a force with which to be reckoned, and this is a
collection which definitely deserves your attention.

Also worthy of your attention is Eric Norris’ “Takaaki: A
Romance,” 66 sonnets of pure wordplaying skill depicting the relationship
between Eric and his Japanese boyfriend Takaaki. It’s different in that it’s
not free verse. Written in a modified Pushkin rhyme scheme and covering
everything from clipping toenails on the toilet to The Kobayashi Maru (Google
it if you have no geek creds), this illustration of the differences between
East and West is remarkable for not only its sense of humor but its sense of
the banal. In Norris’ hands, Dunkin’ Donuts and wilty chrysanthemums become
devotional offerings to his Takaaki, and Scrabble becomes a battleground.

 

            “Have bath sounds
good. But Scrabble, I will pass.

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            You always win, you creep. You
clearly cheat,”

            I said, “It’s obvious. You won the
last

            nine times. You’re not going to
defeat

            me for time number ten tonight.” I
put

            my foot down firmly…

            “You lost because you play without
strategy.

            There is no need for me to cheat,”
he sighed,

            as if I were an insect on his thigh

            too insignificant to crush—a flea.

“You
waste time making interesting word—not the word that wins.”

Norris develops this relationship before our eyes, picking
and choosing his details with a connoisseur’s eye and a poet’s heart. His joy
in being with the man that he loves is evident, poured over these lines like
dark, sweet syrup—and, what’s even more important, he seems to be having a
wonderful time writing about it. That mood infects the reader as well, making
this an absolutely enthralling experience leading up to the startling
revelation that ends this piece. I wouldn’t spoil it, but it’s a little bit of
synchronicity that clarifies as it stings.

Stinging is exactly Walter Beck’s intention in his chapbook,
“Life Through Broken Pens,” as nearly every piece is an indictment of some
segment of American society—and deservedly so. He tears through these poems
with icy fire, demanding your respect and your attention. This is incendiary
poetry, full of revolution and angry hope, reminding me very much of Manny
Xavier. I haven’t seen Beck perform it, but I’d be willing to bet he puts
everything he’s got into his time at the mic. In “Hopes of a Young American
Poet,” “Revolution Summer,” “No More Martyrs Blues,” “American Dream” and “I Am
More Than a Cocksucker,” Beck’s ambition and fervency rule and score the page,
leaving you breathless. But even revolutionaries must take time out for love,
as Beck does in “Cold Romance”:

                                    I
love you/because you make me forget/

                                    That
I haven’t spoken to my mother/

                                    In
two months…

                                    I
love you/because you make me forget/

                                    that
I can’t even speak my mind anymore;

                                    You
make me forget/That in 21st Century America/

                                    It’s
fine to have any opinion you like,

                                    as
long as you don’t tell anyone else.

                                    I
love you/because you make me forget/

                                    how
stuck I feel;

                                    Strapped
to the seat/With no chance of getting out

                                    and
rolling the dice.

Beck is still young, and his voice is not yet fully formed.
He’s still learning his craft, but this is powerful, muscular stuff. It
stimulates and challenges, and I’m sure Beck would take that as a compliment.
Because it is.

Part two of the Poetry Roundup will feature Chrisopher
Soden’s “Closer,” two Evan Peterson chapbooks, two Raymond Luczak reissues and
some other surprises. Stay tuned. 

Reviews by Jerry Wheeler

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