I missed Rhodes’s first two volumes of poetry, but I’m delighted to say I’ve now found this Provincetown bard. The structure of his pieces is as simple as his language, but that doesn’t equal simplistic. These poems are as complex and full of meaning as any overburdened with effete and obscure metaphors. He has a fine sense of irony coupled with a keen eye for detail, and his eye roams everywhere–post WWII musings, living with HIV, cruise ships, seasons, love, sex, faith, and the joys and agonies of being gay. But as observant as Rhodes is, he’s most successful when turning that eye inward. Whether it’s his personal history (“On the #1”), his aging process (“Old”), or his fondness for Vivian Vance (“Ethel”), he’s always winking at the reader, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Take, for example, his rumination on his own place in poetry, “Pretend I’m dead”: Pretend I’m dead and read this poem/as if the world has truly lost/an important, vital voice. Prepare/to assess my work in a fresh light/and try your best to put aside/those death-engendered sympathies/which have made poetic mountains/out of molehills. Some poets would rather die than undercut their inflated self-importance like that. Rhodes is cheeky and clever. What else do you need?
Kieran York is a hopeless romantic, but that is not perjorative in any way. If our society needs anything right now, it’s woman (and men) whose souls are centered on romance rather than snark. As readers can discern by the cover, some of this volume consists of nature poetry, sincere and achingly heartfelt (“As Nature Moves Us Through Life,” “Rocky Mountain Utopia,” “Etiquette of Morning”) but York sucessfully blends these metaphors with other life lessons of beginning romance (“Touring With My Wilding”). She also reminds us of those pre- and immediately post-Stonewall days when things were rockier between us and straight society (“Waiting for a Good Man,” “Kissing at the CherryBomb Grill”). However, I picture York as a 60’s lesbian troubadour, a remnant of the era when this country had a conscience instead of merely a consciousness. And she fesses up to that image in pieces like “Lesbos After Dark,” “Do Not Disturb,” and, my favorite of the lot, “Confessions of a Retired Hippie”: I’m not warrior material/Roz, however, was a three-beer mercenary/A snoutful of brew, and she’d swing at anybody/We were too pompous and too tortured/to take the shape of a shadow./In the scheme of life,/we were smoother than a sharpened bayonet./After soaking up a second beer,/she was the butch of all chivalry./That made me the jovial sidekick./Saving a woman’s honor – that’s what Roz was doing. Rock on, Kieran. Rock on.
And speaking of firebrands, if Orville Lloyd Douglas isn’t one, he’ll do until the real thing comes along. Many Americans have this idealized, utopic view of Canada, but Douglas explodes that myth to give us a glimpse of a country that has faults as real as our own. Racial hatred and injustice are as rife in “Alberta” and “Africville” as they are in Ferguson. Douglas’s rage is real and palpable, but its articulate nature gainsays any Us Vs. Them scenario and puts you squarely in his corner. If gay men and women understand anything at all, it’s rage. Rage at religion (“Choir Boy”), rage at homophobia (“Passion”), rage at the closet (“Crimes of Passion”) and rage at rage (“The Rage Within Me”). Powerful and muscular, these pieces are not to be consumed all at once. One or two bites are all you need to digest before you go back, but Under My Skin is a harsh meal that deserves to be finished because its lessons are so vital for everyone, as in “You Know Everything”: You know what it’s like on the subway or the bus/People standing clear or inching away, making a fuss/an old white lady clutching her purse/Being different is a curse/Yeah, you’re really black/You are so down my brother/But you don’t want to live in my section of town. Harsh poetry, harsh words, and harsh truths–but their harshness enhances their meaning. Even if this isn’t the kind of poetry you usually like, you need to read it.
Kelly McQuain is not as harsh or angry, but he is every bit as observant and personal in his latest chapbook from Bloom, Velvet Rodeo. This volume is dedicated to his mother and partner, so as expected, the work concentrates on family but not necessarily domesticity. Titles like “Southern Heat,” “Creation Myth,” and ‘Lent” are important to McQuain’s personal mythology, but they’re universal enough that we can all relate to them. And who can’t recall the liquors of their youth, as in his “A Man in the Station Bar Makes Me Miss My Train?” Liquor is also important in “The Absinthe Drinker,” but not as important as the narrator forgiving the callowness and shallow superiority of the youth he drinks with. But of all the memories recalled here, perhaps the strongest is portrayed in “Uncle,” which sees an older brother requesting a sperm donation from his younger. McQuain takes this opportunity to muse on not only life’s inception, but what happens to brothers once they enter the arena together. The last stanza is particularly poignant: My brother doesn’t need me/after all. We can keep on ghosting/through each other’s lives. Ten years slip by./My brother doesn’t phone to ask any favors./He had a boy our father never got to hold./Our hellos and how-are-yous are occasional tithes/offered at birthdays and funerals/followed by awkward goodbyes./Sometimes I see children—/other brothers. The way they wrestle,/bodies sweaty, getting knotted,/steeped in tension and smells/—armpits, peanut butter, sour milk—/until, with a twist, one gets the upper hand:/stronger pins weaker, makes him cry uncle. Involving and deceptively honest, McQuain’s voice is as true as it is edged.
Brent Calderwood’s debut collection from Sibling Rivalry is an impressive volume speaking to possibilities–the potential of the narrators to become any number of men, from the “different boys” in “Ballad of the Kind Young Men” to the ones who seek absolute perfection of “Anal Bleaching is All the Rage.” Such journeys begin in childhood, a base Calderwood covers well (“Stay Little Valentine Stay,” “Abecedarius”) but he doesn’t become stuck reminiscing. He also deals with the very real adult concepts of impermenence and its consequences, both in a portentious way (“Evolution,” “Goat Rock”) and with lighthearted metaphor (“Dog Villanelle”). That he does both with equal facility shows the breadth of his voice. And he has a particular talent for repurposing popular culture references, tossing off a beautiful restatement of The Eurythmics in “Rain” as well as a fascinating use of Norma Desmond’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard, “We had faces then” in “Headless Men”: “We had faces.”/A line from a movie no one sees./They are all headless men./We used to read books in a leather den,/then head to the tearoom on our knees./We had faces./Now we’re online till god-knows-when/for a knight with a horse in his BVDs,/but they are all headless men,/either chopped at the neck like a free-range hen/or cropped at the crotch like limbless trees. This is poetic voice at its finest, and it’s only his beginning. I look forward to hearing more.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler