Picano on Poetry

(ED: Today, Felice Picano talks about a few of his recent poetry finds: Stories by Lewis Ellingham, This Day by Jonathan Bracker, and Orpheus in His Underwear by William Bory – click on titles to purchase)

These three books are by older, “experienced,” poets, two from San Francisco, the third from New York. Or rather, two of them are older: Bory died of HIV back in 1994. But if he were alive today, he, too, would be an older and experienced poet.

Aside from that, the three books here are as different as any three books could be. To begin with they are completely accessible to the common reader –that, I’m guessing, is you. You don’t need a degree in literature or a background in analyzing poems to read, enjoy, and as I’m already doing, to return to these books for the pure enjoyment of it. You are in the hands of three writers who knew very well what they were doing.

Secondly, they aren’t all poetry in verse and even when they are in verse, that’s almost secondary to the fact that they are more like stories.

product_thumbnailIn fact, Lew Ellingham’s Stories is just that: his own story and stories in poetry and in prose, interspersed with jottings and quotations of other writers, news stories from TV or from the papers. So it is something of an old fashioned “Day Book”: or, as they say in Japan, a “Pillow Book.” At the same time it is smashingly new and up to date, especially as it is set in San Francisco where Ellingham lives and happily details the various goings on of characters there, from bereft neighbors running mad, to unique street people, all the way to those Techies in cafes with laptops. All of it uniquely observed and told.

Here are a few examples in prose:

This morning I watched the still-dark sky and noticed an/array of small clouds stretching the whole distance from/west to east that look to be a skeletal hand slightly curved,/but with many more fingers than five, seen as bone as all the/way to the wrist. It was darkly elegant

 The working poor, no one well dressed; it’s the faces/I stare at, the women more than the men. All/hurrying, old shoes, no one with a public face….

 Suffering she understood is always there/Like the noise a little mouse makes,/A whispering noise but easily tuned out/Because of course it is always there.

When he does write in verse-form, it is usually something like this:

            the mountain in its haze

    the footprints left behind;

the hint of something said

    popping bubbles on the sand          


purple – lavender purple—

            everywhere lilacs spilling

all around the Victory garden,

     Mrs. Kerbock’s cat sleeping

            in the shade, maybe

   the purple makes a sound, the

    yellow does, a little bit,

      the orange more….

or even

a round-robin of four voices by email

Another side is the San Francisco scholar and poet:

The English word “zombie” is first/Recorded in 1819, in a history of Brazil by the/Poet Robert Southey, in the form of “zombie.”/The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin/Of the word as West African and compares it to/The Congo words “mzambii “(god) and “zumbi” (fetish)

 I just showed the outside of the building to a friend/who’s father my lover and I had received there in/the summer of  … 4 Harwood Alley, even the street/name had been changed to Bob Kaufman Place, a/beatnik poet long dead.

Who can be satirical“even babies have websites,” I commented at the chi-gong class

There’s something grand and full and even Whitmanesque about Stories. It feels both like a culmination and a new beginning. It has found a solid place on my shelf of new books, and I know I will return to it often.

9781625491367_p0_v1_s192x300Jonathan Bracker’s book by contrast is one of those little gems or treasure houses that poets should write but often don’t or often don’t release during their lifetimes. This Day is itself a kind of day book, but far from Ellingham’s very urban landscape, this book is set in nature. Those gerbera daisies on the cover aren’t just decoration, because nature closely observed in short verses are the subject here. But it’s the kind of nature we all know:

Down the three steps/From the front porch/Of the cottage for rent/With its door propped open,/A sparrow hops


My obliterating sole/Missed the caterpillar on his long slow walk/Because a Monarch butterfly/Disdaining weeds/Fluttered through a tree

The poems have an Asian feel, tiny, turning, complete, somewhat like modern Haiku. I was strongly reminded of Issa and also of Su’ T’ung Po. Bracker has such a clear eye. In “The Season for Lizards,” he writes:

Their appearance brief/Is mostly tail

and in “Teleological Song”:

Autumn’s purpose/Apparently/Was to turn completely yellow

He calls the “Narcissus” flowers

Dark green pick-up sticks God/Speared into the moist earth

I’ve been reading Bracker’s work for decades and his 2005 Paris Sketches is one of my favorites. But the Zen simplicity makes This Day a keeper.

5073332204Bory’s poetry is far more formal than either Californian both in its form and format. But it is also more sexual in its subject matter. In a way it too is a kind of Pillow Book, dealing with people, places, ideas, and events that have caught the poet’s attention, or that he’s lived through.

In “Art and Insemination” Bory defines the poet (himself), and warns:

Friend, do not trust his sly addresses,/”His heart laid bare” indeed./Is it really there?/No, long gone, purloined, forfeited,/panhandled.

 And in “The Gratified Child”:

I saw the noted poet/with his plastic bag of tags/at a funeral,/dotty as an old duchess/and dressed in rags.

Bory’s portraits poems are each a perfect little cameo. “On a Subway Pickup””

 Your clothes were wrong,/or so they said./You took them off,/we went to bed,/and there, your body,/like a light,/made everything around it bright/with beauty.

And “On Seeing Farmboys in Church”

In white shirts, in white churches,/The farm boys are asleep./Their tow heads nod beneath the slumberous ponder/Of the murmured sermon 

While “The Demon Paperboy” has:

arms like pulls of toffee,/lest we not learn of the gulf/That separates us,/the distance between,/his narrow bike seat/and my doorstep,/the secrets he has yet to discover

Bory reveals himself through others, through rehab centers and Japanese Maples, through Portuguese whores, and even The Prince of Patagonia, writing about their darkness and light with equal fearlessness.

All three books remind me of one of the great tenets of Buddhism: to be mindful. These are three of the most mindful writers I’ve read in years.

They’ll make wonderful gifts for friends and family too.

Reviewed by Felice Picano


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2 responses to “Picano on Poetry

  1. I’m very pleased with the review, Felice, and a bit flattered. -lew ellingham

  2. Of course I’m flattered too, as Issa was one of the poets I was struck by when, as a fairly young reader, I found haiku in translation.

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