Review by Ann E. Michael
Etch and Blur
Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014
paperback, 81 pp, $15.95
Shape and Nature Press, 2014
paperback, 67 pp, $14.95
Two new books, Jamie Thomas’ Etch and Blur and Dennis Finnell’s Ruins Assembling, arrived at my house within days of each other. The occurrence isn’t in itself remarkable, but as I read the collections I kept feeling resonances between the two books in terms of theme and style. It seemed logical to review them together.
Finnell’s collection is his fifth book, whereas Thomas’ is his debut. The texts are alike in that both men ground their poems with a strong sense of place, particularly the places of once-storied cities (St. Louis, Detroit) the US working person knows a bit too well and the suburban sameness that springs up on the perimeters of them. These poems mention strip mall plazas, changed neighborhoods, news stories, and point out, ruefully, what we human beings have wrought upon the earth and upon ourselves. Stylistically, the writers differ, although both poets are comfortable using short line lengths and extended ones, adding variety to each collection individually. Finnell, especially, has developed a mature and original voice, so specific that it is difficult to imagine the poems’ speaker as anything other than autobiographical:
Dear Uncle Vern: I bet you had faith in a heavenly racetrack,
not so much one with tall palms as at Santa Anita
signaling oasis or even one where the horse and rider communicate
to you in trembling earth down the stretch…
…The story goes we met once—
I was six months old so the “we” is debatable.
What’s your take on when someone becomes an “I”?
(from “The Fitzsimmons Fund”)
Tucked into corners of these poems that spin narratives about people around the block or family tales and tall tales are some incredibly lovely observations that enliven the telling and anchor the humor or discomfort with poignancy. From “Dot in the Sky” (to mention only one), there are memorable phrases—“Every sky is a marketplace. March’s featured/what was in season: wind, good clouds” and “the kite itself falling as a leaf/does, certain of its destiny, of two minds/about the path down…” How right that seems, the kite’s two minds about the downward path. Finnell is also equal to the task of wordplay, assonance, and subtle (or not so subtle) allusions. The closing stanza of “Eat the Rich!” is:
Eating the tripe of Bill Gates shall require
endless chewing, done in remembrance of whom?
The afterlife shall be eternal cud, beautiful
code. We shall eat without end,
nourished by that which consumes us.
Humor is one of the more obvious aspects these poets have in common, though Thomas’ sense of humor is more self-deprecating than Finnell’s. Thomas turns to humor to keep his poems both lively and thoughtful. The persona behind the majority of the work in Etch and Blur is the rueful fellow who’s afraid he might be one of life’s sad sacks, but the reader can guess that persona is at least partially a blind. The speakers in these poems are full of second-guesses and wry self-reflections, observers of life’s ironies (mundane and bitter by turns) in the process of trying to see things clearly, if that were possible. Of a broken mirror and its aphoristic years of bad luck, “[t]he shardsscatter and fall in the place where you find/yourself.” Like Finnell, Thomas seems most at home writing a voice that sounds convincingly autobiographical—“this is his life—and my/summer work. My advanced degrees/are nothing on this site,/my borrowed hammer awkwardly attacking/the brick half-wall”—but Etch and Bluralso includes a number of poems in a more distant observer mode, or even in a persona that is clearly not the poet-as-narrator.
Thomas takes risks with work that verges on sentiment; all poets understand how tough a balancing act it can be to write of romantic love or parental love in the skeptical spotlight of contemporary times. Generally, he gets away with the balancing act, and part of the way he does so is through wordplay and cleverness, the irony of which offers up moving turns when the poems brush against genuine introspective emotionality. In part 5 of “Lines Written Before a Scheduled Blackout” (with its Wordsworthian reference), Thomas writes:
I am afraid to fly; shouldn’t we be afraid to fly?
Lake Michigan from 15,000 feet:
a black spot on a lung,
the streetlight synapses
of Chicago lit up like a chest x-ray…
Sometimes, I am afraid, at a distance.
We hope the same way we hate, by smothering.
Moments such as these keep Jamie Thomas’ collection from becoming too glib, too clever—and he is very funny, so it would be easy to focus on the occasionally messy, even silly, whirling asides and puns. Yet the humor doesn’t, in the end, undermine his themes. The risk works. Finnell’s humor is slightly less obvious, and darker—or merely more keenly aware of mortality—and he tends toward larger, more abstract circumspection. That is also a risk, and it also works. Both books exhibit a sly awareness of the paradox, struggle, and potential amusement inherent in the human condition. I would be happy to find such coincidences arriving in my mailbox more often.
Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com.