Monthly Archives: August 2020

Songs and Poems – Felice Picano (Cyberwit)

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Felice Picano has written over thirty books, mostly novels, short story collections, memoir, even some plays and screenplays, but Songs and Poems is his first poetry collection since The Deformity Lover and Other Poems (1977). In the promotional page to his collection Picano notes that “it should really be titled Early Songs and Poems and Later Songs and Poems.” Many of the early poems were actually written before those in Deformity Lover; their publication now is due to the generosity of Picano’s friend, Dennis Sanders, who returned copies of “Fragments, 1972” and “On the Morton Street Pier, 1970,” which Picano had feared lost.

Picano indeed does organize his collection into two parts, early and late (i.e., poems that either predate or postdate Deformity Lover), each roughly equal in length, containing eleven and thirteen poems respectively. The earlier poems encompass a variety of forms, from sonnets (“Country-Pop Sonnet”) to odes (“Apples”) to pieces that are almost haikuesque in their brevity (“A Scroll by Mu Chi,” third in “Repaintings.”) The section ends with several longer pieces: selections from “On the Morton Street Pier, A Poem Suite,” “Repaintings” (four distinct poems, each describing a different objet d’art), and ending with “In Memoriam: Wystan Hugh Auden, 1973.” “In Memoriam” is definitely my favorite of this section: a beautiful homage, it describes perfectly the sense of dislocation one feels upon learning of a friend’s death (often under perfectly ordinary, even boring, circumstances), the reminiscing afterward, the refusal to avoid communal rituals of mourning in favor of more personal memorials.

The thirteen poems of the second section follow a similar pattern, beginning with shorter pieces, followed by longer works (“My Mother’s Life,” which is original to this collection, and “Window Elegies”) before ending with one final sonnet (the melancholic “Envoi”). Not surprisingly, the poems in this section are much more reflective, dwelling on such themes as loss, regret, and the inevitable endings (of relationships, of lives) that one encounters later in life. My favorites in this section are the aforementioned “Envoi” (because I cannot resist a good sonnet) and the (ironically?) titled “A Late Aubade.” The latter is part of a long tradition of “dawn songs”–poems about lovers leaving each other at dawn, after spending the night together; except here the lovers meet in the afternoon, perhaps to part at dusk.

This collection is aptly named. Poetry, I feel, should be spoken and heard, not just silently read: while reading these poems, I was struck by their innate lyricism, and thought how easily they could be set to music; in particular, a set of the later poems almost read like country-pop lyrics (“Lifted,” New Orleans Girls,” “Ashes and Ice,” and “Break Down”). Upon reading Picano’s promotional page I learned that, yes, indeed, many of these poems have been set to music: composer Walter Torgensen set some of the earlier poems, which Jackie Curtis sang in her act, and a California inmate from a medium security facility had set many of the later poems to music while incarcerated. These poems, indeed, should be sung and heard.

Picano writes with a clarity that makes reading his poetry a delight: no obtuse language or pretentious wordplay obscure the situations described therein—the reader never has to wonder what’s going on, or if an image is “just” a metaphor for what he’s “really” writing about. Even if you’re a reader whose love of poetry was destroyed by modern education, you will enjoy these poems for their humor, honesty, directness, and keen insight into the human condition.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Find Me When I’m Lost – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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Da Mack is back!

Okay, she’s back minus one main character–but the loss is hardly noticeable, as this fifth installment of the popular Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series makes a brilliant substitution. The other elements, however, are all in place and operating like the sleek, well-oiled Detroit machine Head has constructed. Fans won’t be disappointed in Find Me When I’m Lost, and it’s also a dandy place for the newbie to start.

Charlie receives a frantic midnight call from Pamela, her ex-husband Franklin’s current wife. Franklin is missing, but that’s probably because he’s been charged with his brother-in-law’s murder. Of course, Charlie knows he didn’t do it, but she has no idea where he is or how to find him. The police and his father-in-law are convinced of Franklin’s guilt, but Charlie puts the weight of Mack Investigations behind her efforts to uncover the truth, leading to some twists, some turns, and some surprising conclusions.

One surprise here is the departure of Gil Acosta, who (along with Don), was a mainstay of Mack Investigations. Actually, that was foretold at the end of the fourth book. What’s surprising is the promotion of capable, highly organized office manager Judy into an investigative role. She acquits herself well, too, bringing some interesting perspective to the client interviews she does. Her easy banter complements the crew well, and the reader gets the feeling she’ll be settling in for the long haul. And although that’s it for the personnel changes, this book shows a bit more of the relationship between Charlie and Mandy.

And, of course, Head’s local color is tremendous, from the legal student/pole dancer named Cursory Brief to a sumptuous description of the pierogies at Polonia’s in Hamtramck, a delicacy I remember well, especially washed down with a 16 oz. Zywiec porter and a shot of raspberry syrup. But never mind the snacks. Can we talk about how easily this book slips down? It has great pacing and never crowds you up with extraneous detail. If Head mentions it twice, pay attention – it’s gonna show up later. The action sequences move with assurance and authority, and nothing feels forced or inorganic.

In short, Cheryl Head and Bywater Books come up with another winner in the Charlie Mack series. I don’t think they need any prodding for a sixth book, but they should consider themselves prodded.


© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Pigeon – Richard Natale (Blazing Heart Publishing)

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I first ran across Richard Natale a few years ago when I edited some of his work for Bold Strokes–Cafe Eisenhower, Junior Willis, and Love on the Jersey Shore. One facet of all three books I enjoyed immensely was Natale’s characters. They’re always interesting and complex, but they also consistently make the tough decisions and stand up for the right things. That’s especially important for a murder mystery, which Pigeon, Natale’s latest, essentially is. However, that’s only the starting point for this richly detailed and well-told story.

American artist Yancy Gallagher has been invited to lecture at the same Italian university at which he took his degree a few years before. As he gets settled in, he reads of a local murder. Certain details convince him the unidentified dead man is actually Rudi, his ex from when he was a student there. His search for Rudi’s killer takes him to some “corporate” (read mobster) types who run a circuit of clubs Rudi was managing. Yancy, Rudi’s mother, and an understanding police detective combine forces to bring Rudi’s killer to justice–with some surprising results along the way.

As mentioned before, Natale’s characters are always worthwhile but here he’s transported them to a lovely Italian town. Although it does not become a character itself, it lends an undeniable air of languor to what is usually a harried and perilous situation in a more urban setting. Those metro murder interviews are conducted with wisecracks and threats, but Gallagher’s investigation is much friendlier, often taking place over a nice glass of red in some al fresco setting. That does not mean those inquiries are any less tense or driven, just that they’re more polite on the surface. And, perhaps, just a bit deadlier because of it.

And the mystery itself is well worth your time. Initially straightforward, Rudi’s fate becomes more and more questionable with each revelation until Natale has you not knowing what to believe. The twists and turns are intricate but also wholly believable, and they never serve the plot over character. Moreover, it never feels rushed or incomplete. Compliments also go out to the cover designer. The artwork perfectly conveys the slightly surreal environment.

Pigeon, then, is a beautifully layered mystery full of well-drawn major and minor characters. You won’t see the ending coming, but it will make perfect sense once you’re there. Highly recommended.


© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler


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