Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 4/06


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available.  And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what...

By G. Murray Thomas

CD by Paul Nelson

A fellow poet and I were discussing the merits of chapbooks and CDs. We talked about the costs and ease of production and the impression made on a buying public by the product. We agreed that nowadays, with CDs as easy and cheap to produce as chapbooks, that most poets would be better off producing CDs of their work. That chapbooks are almost too common, and people are much more impressed with a CD. What we never talked about was the question of which format best suits one’s style of poetry. 

I thought about this when listening to Paul Nelson’s “A Time Before Slaughter.” While well recorded, I couldn’t help feeling I might better appreciate these poems in print.
 Much of the CD is taken up with excerpts from an epic poem, also called “A Time Before Slaughter,” detailing the history of Auburn, WA (once called Slaughter). The poem finds poetic resonance between the settling of Slaughter and resultant displacement of the Native Americans and the internment of the Japanese one hundred years later, while also examining the natural setting in which these events took place. The problem is this poem would be easier to absorb, understand, and (frankly) cross-reference in print. As an audio piece, I feel I am only getting the basic surface of what is being said. 

There is also a series of pieces Nelson calls “American Sentences,” a haiku-like form, consisting of one sentence poems. These are much more appropriate for the audio format, although it took me a couple of listens to even catch on to what was happening in them. The initial effect is like reading haiku at an open reading -- by the time the audience really starts listening, the poem is over. Once the format is established, however, they are quite clever little pieces. One example: “Twelve vehicle crash, northbound I-5, caused by slick roads and a rainbow.” 

The final poem is “Tuscan Sonnet Ring.” A sonnet ring is a subtle form, repeating lines within a tightly fixed structure. Once again, it is a form best appreciated in print, where one can follow all the connections. 

Paul Nelson writes subtle and complex poems. “A Time Before Slaughter” gives a nice introduction to them, but is not best format to fully appreciate his artistry.  

(Paul Nelson will be reading at Zoey’s Cafe, Ventura, on Thursday, April 20. He will also participate in a panel discussion of the 315 Project on Saturday, April 22, in Ventura.)

     -- G. Murray Thomas

CD by Corbet Dean

Even the most avid slam poet will admit that there are certain topics which seem to automatically score high. Among these is police brutality. Just mention the name Amadou Diallo, and watch those scores climb.

So should we be surprised that in 2002, a policeman, Corbet Dean, took second place in the National Slam? Listening to Dean’s CD, “A Collection of Crime Scenes,” the answer is, certainly not.

Dean is the cop you hope will show up when you call 911. The cop who does what he does because he cares about people. He is a policeman with a heart.

He is also a policeman with an eye for the telling detail, and an ear ready to put words in the right order to convey that heart, that detail, the life he knows. “Crime Scenes” starkly presents the moral dilemmas and emotional stresses of being a policeman in today’s urban environment.

On the most simplistic level, Dean wins slams because his poetry conforms to the audiences’ opinions about cops: “every cop becomes an asshole.” (“letter my dad never gave me”) That policing is an ugly business, which requires ugly actions, and, occasionally, even ugly people. In “Heroes” he even drops Diallo’s name, and gets the instant applause it can evoke (the recording of the poem used here is from the 2002 National Slam).

But that’s the simplistic level. These poems are not about playing to any audience. They are being honest about what policing really entails. And they acquire their power not just from their honesty, but from the quality of Dean’s observation and writing. Dean finds just the right details to convey his messages. The story of the little girl Odessa in “Nietzsche’s Prophecy” becomes a perfect vehicle for Dean to express the frustration of what he cannot accomplish as a policeman.

The poems on “Crime Scenes” are not just about police work. Dean also writes about love, marriage, God and philosophy. He examines his Christian beliefs and romantic failures with the same honesty and clarity he turns on his job. Poems such as “on the eve of my best friend’s wedding” and “wandering words” are heartfelt reflections on love and romance, while “get real” and “habit of hate” examine true Christianity; “I should have said” manages to cover both territories in one moving poem.

So the answer is Corbet Dean wins slams because he writes great poetry. 

Unfortunately, I do have one series criticism of this CD. It is not with the poetry, but the production of the CD. The recording levels are terribly inconsistent, so that a couple of the tracks are recorded at such a low volume that I couldn’t even hear them on my computer. Please, poets, make sure the technical quality of your recordings is up to the quality of your words.

 -- G. Murray Thomas



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G. Murray Thomas