Poetry for Southern California
My Father's Lady, Wearing Black
Book by Alex M. Frankel
Conflux Press (www.confluxpress.com)
My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black is a book so honest, it will make you uncomfortable, almost from the first page. Frankel is blunt about his feelings for his father, his homosexuality, his loneliness. He introduces all of these in the very first poem, “Everyone Moves Away You Start Talking to Your Alarm Clock,” but subtly, just giving hints at what’s to come.
For example, what is only alluded to here, “... you followed him through Horror,/ you followed him through Action./ He shook his head, took his girlfriend’s hand” becomes explicit in “As Long as You’re Not Forty and Still Doing It”: “Nine hundred fourteen people/ chatting in Romance, eighteen hundred/ in Daddy/Boy, but the Pig Pen’s full/ (‘please try again later’).” But it’s not just the pick-up that’s important, it’s the loneliness behind it. “As Long as You’re Not Forty...” ends with “Maybe tonight try and make contact/ with the cashier’s hand/ while he’s handing you your change./ It will harm no one.”
But the key relationship here is with his father, and his death. It plays a recurring role in the opening poem, which ends with, “A father dies noisily, in stages, on the floor, in his fluids,/ calling out to you,/ calling the name he gave you.” The full nature of this relationship is laid out slowly, piece by piece. The book is structured almost as a mystery story, accumulating evidence bit by bit, until he reaches the title poem, in which his father leaves his entire fortune (“Two million one hundred thousand eight hundred sixty-nine dollars/ and seventy-four cents”) to the aforementioned lady.
Frankel creates his poems out of specific details and memories. “In Search of Dodger Stadium” uses the fact that his father never took him to a ball game to describe how Frankel feels like he was never given a normal childhood. Walking through the unwelcoming neighborhoods around the stadium becomes a metaphor for the feelings of alienation this created within him. Which in turn illuminates the recurring loneliness in these poems.
In “We Had a House in San Franzisko,” a tour of the house he grew up in evokes the dysfunctional family life which occurred there. “Meat on the Bone” does the same thing with Thanksgiving dinner. In both of these poems, he delineates the dysfunction -- the arguments, the fights, the betrayals: “the refuges who tried to have a child, adopted me instead,/ who attacked each other with knives and spatulas” (“We Had a House...”); “’Dammit finish what’s on that plate! unheard-of, how much meat you leave on the drumstick!’ And so I learned to enjoy.” (“Meat on the Bone”). However, he also shows he understands where the dysfunction came from: “In them, the Holocaust lived on.” (“We Had a House...”), and “He remembered hunger in Shanghai’s German-Jewish ghetto” (“Meat on the Bone”).
In this way the portrait he presents of his father is not entirely negative, despite all the poems describing the abuse he meted out. Therefore, it is not a complete surprise when, in “Nobody Liked Him,” he makes us feel some sympathy for his father, and his lightly attended funeral. Further, we understand when he writes, “I need his anger/ and his voice.”
After his father’s death, Frankel attempts to return to everyday life. The poems in the final third of the book are all disorientation, anxiety and nameless dread. He suffers from insomnia, wanders through the 7-Eleven late at night, goes for anonymous pick-ups in a men’s room.
In the final poem, appropriately titled, “I Will Not Go to My Father’s Grave,” he returns to what’s bothering him:
I see only you and your women,
your trips to Rio and Saint Tropez
with the last of the women, the one who struck gold.
I will burn your cane and your glasses
along with your will
because you don’t know how much they pay in South Central, do you,
when I line up for a donut and a lottery ticket.
Which brings us to a conclusion, but not really a resolution. The narrator is left as lonely and restless as when the book started. Still, it is a powerful portrait of a dysfunctional family, and its lingering aftereffects.
— G. Murray Thomas
Book by Brian Michael Tracy
Tebot Bach (www.tebotbach.org)
Writing poetry that takes place in the space of dreams is no easy task—the poet must walk a fine line between the surreal logic of their subconscious and the reader’s means to understand it. Brian Michael Tracy attempts to tackle this imposing feat in Opaque Traveler, which is less a collection of poems than it is one long poem broken up into pieces—a dream sequence in verse, as the cover suggests. This book follows the dreamer and a small cast of characters—Augustine, Jerome (Jerry Garcia), and Ponce De Leon—as they revel together and journey the dreamscape for the Queen (which Queen, I’m not certain). Images and symbols slip in and out of the narrative with the same ethereal grace as they do in our own dreams. To what purpose? Of that I’m not certain either. But isn’t that how it always goes with our dreams? So to that effect, I don’t much mind the Opaque Traveler’s inherent ambiguity. However, after reading and rereading, I am still left wanting more from this ambitious endeavor.
That is not to say this is poorly written work; there are good things here. Tracy declares in the book’s preface that he “attempts to articulate, through verse, the dream experience at its core,” and I believe that he does accomplish this. The narrative has a lingering effect; images, symbols, and even moments of action seem to echo throughout it the very way these things often do in our own dreams. The 52 parts of the poem string together and intertwine just so that their fragmented nature reflect how our recollection of dreams operate—they begin and end suddenly. I enjoyed the repetitive use of imagery and speculated on their meaning; the way one does trying to interpret a dream. Every time I came across a mention of a human skull, bridges, and dogs (all imagery that appears again and again), I found myself taking note and going back to their previous places of use to seek answers. I also particularly liked the moments when we are given familiar dreamlike episodes within the narrative, ones that the reader can most certainly relate to, such as this one from "Dream (Five)":
I look down
and the dogs
have eaten away my feet.
I cannot move.
I cannot speak
And this one from "Dream (Twenty-two)":
I turn and see a bridge.
I run for the bridge
as I am falling
the fire goes out.
I wake up.
The sensation of not being able to move and speak in a dream as well as falling and waking up abruptly seem to be hardwired in the human subconscious, and I appreciated Tracy paying notice to them here. It was here, in these moments, that I felt most engaged, where I felt Tracy’s narrative move from a personal space to someplace more universal. This is that “more” I spoke of earlier.
Dreams are tricky devils. They’re intrinsically personal, so in writing about them, the poet risks distancing the reader by making the work too subjective. While great writing does indeed stem from the very personal, it allows readers to see themselves reflected in the work. Opaque Traveler’s narrative—its dreamer’s journey across a nocturnal landscape—while interesting in its design, did nothing to make me feel as if I was a part of it. My biggest problem with Tracy’s work here is that the writing is too prosaic, too flat, and too full of exposition. Every poem reads with an I-am-doing-this-I-am-doing-that-monotony. I recognize this to be perhaps a conscious choice on his part, as his book’s prologue and epilogue read quite differently. I liked the epilogue quite a bit. It was rich with metaphor:
The fish are memories
that swim in and out of the pillow…
around and through its blood…
blood that moves steadily beneath a bridge
of outstretched human arms toward its end:
A pool of liquid, luminous
collecting beneath the sun
returning to the air
to the sky
(seen and unseen)
leaving the pulsing fish behind.
The use of language here is gorgeous, far from prosaic. The reader is anchored in rich imagery that engages one with the momentum of active participation in its narrative. We can see a clearer reflection of ourselves here—the writing far more objective, we are able to discern and dissect our own meaning from it. I want to read more of this kind of verse depicting the dreamscape of Opaque Traveler’s speaker so as to be both equally invested in both the plot and the themes at play in the work. Other moments Tracy broke away from flat diction that surprised and delighted me were in instances of dialogue between his characters. These instances are almost prophetic and reward with their subtle beauty of phrasing. This is the case here in what is my favorite line of the whole book:
I say those who cannot be healed write
and, in writing, risk further infection.
These examples of Tracy’s strength with craft just draw even more attention to what this book lacks. Again, this seems to be a conscious choice on his part, but I feel that choice does not serve him well. The result is an overall narrative that while intriguing in scope is too one-dimensional for my taste.
Before I sat down to write this review I was talking it over with a friend, airing out the troubles I had with the book. I wasn’t certain how to begin or where to go with it. He posed a good question: Does the poet succeed in following the logic they create in the space of the work? My immediate response to that was and still is, is that enough?
Tracy has my respect as a writer. He attempted a grand project with a level of consistency and care that would be an aspiration for any writer. Though I believe this to be of little consolation to the casual, or even the avid reader, who is looking to be swept up in work that rewards with multiple readings—work that exercises the heart, as much as it does the head.
— Eric Morago