Poetry for Southern California
We would like to welcome several new reviewers to the Poetix staff. Eric Morago has been writing for us for several years now. Nancy Shiffrin provided her first review in September. Also, look for reviews from Danielle Mitchell soon. As usual, I will continue to provide reviews on regular basis myself.
G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
Birth Mother Mercy
Book by Alex M. Frankel
Lummox Press (http://www.lummoxpress.com)
How important is it for a collection of poetry to have, on some level, a sense of cohesion from one poem to another? I’m not saying a poetry collection need always tell a direct narrative—only that it should try to be more than just a hodgepodge of the poet’s work in perfect bound. And if cohesion is lacking, then it should be deliberate.
I fear Alex M. Frankel’s full-length book of poems, Birth Mother Mercy, published by Lummox Press, is not trying to be deliberate.
Don’t get me wrong—Alex is a fine writer. He has a sharp sense of imagery and an uppercut-punch use of language; he conveys emotion with surprising metaphor, and his exploration into themes of loneliness and quiet rage are done so, at times, with a true poet’s precision. Now you’re probably asking yourself: “If he’s giving the poet such praise, how could he possibly have anything critical to say about Frankel’s collection?”
Easy. Birth Mother Mercy does not feel entirely whole to me, or rather, actualized. I say this for a few reasons: there are poems, and even a whole section, which feel quite disjointed from both tone and theme of the collection’s best work. This results in jarring the reader in a way that I don’t believe is intentional, and undercuts the strength of the really good poems—the weight they give to the collection. And what of those really good poems I speak of? Frankel has a handful of them in this book, mostly all about the passing of his father—his processing of that loss and the anger he feels towards his father’s widow. They’re all quite good. So good in fact that Frankel had them all published already in a chapbook entitled, My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black, put out by Conflux Press. Now there’s nothing wrong with pulling from past chapbooks, or even having a whole chapbook serve as a section of a full-length manuscript, if it fits the collection—especially if the chapbook was published years prior, has long been forgotten about, and/or is out of print. But here’s the thing—My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black was published in 2013…the same year as Birth Mother Mercy.
So upon learning this, as a reviewer, as well as a reader, I’m left asking myself: “What warrants these poems’ being republished so soon in a full-length collection only two-thirds more the size of the original chapbook—a two-thirds which is arguably not as strong.
Follow up questions I ask myself are: “Why should I buy the same poems twice?” Did Lummox not know? Was Frankel trying to pull a fast one so he could get two books out, or did Lummox solicit him for a full-length manuscript and, not wanting to turn the opportunity down, took his already balanced chapbook and flushed it out with some other miscellaneous work, thus creating a lopsided Birth Mother Mercy?
One of the poems that appears in both collections (coincidently towards the beginning of each) and is a good example of Frankel’s strengths is, “When Everyone Moves Away You Start Talking to Your Alarm Clock.” Frankel’s first stanza sets the tone perfectly, and creates a vivid landscape for the poem’s theme of loneliness and mortality:
And you look at pigeons
and they won’t look back:
who takes care of them?
Sometimes you’ll spot a crushed one—
flattened mess of feathers, entrails
feeding a flow of ant life.
Who will take care of you?
And Father eighty-nine.
The metaphor of death feeding life here works with subtle eloquence, but also presents itself unapologetically. Unapologetic is a word I’d certainly use to describe Frankel’s aesthetic, and by no means is it a bad thing when it’s done with the poise in which it’s executed here. It makes for a rich complexity to his writing that rewards with multiple reads. The poem ends on a beautiful juxtaposition between the mundane, yet sudden death of a silverfish and the speaker’s father:
A silverfish dies instantly; it’s powder now.
a father dies noisily, in stages, on the floor, in his fluids,
calling out to you,
calling the name he gave you.
The above poem shows Frankel knocking it out of the park, which he certainly does more than once in Birth Mother Mercy, but it’s mostly in the poems that can also be found in My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black. The other poems in Birth Mother Mercy seem to need a little more attention. Perhaps the eyes of an editor, to help Frankel better fit them into the collection in a way that wouldn’t sacrifice his intent or voice.
Case in point is the poem, “SoccerStud16 I Need to Leave This World Come Back as You.” Frankel has a group of poems dealing with the Internet as a sexual outlet—the loneliness and longing that comes from such interaction—but this poem is the most problematic of the bunch, mostly because it’s about unapologetically lusting over a sixteen-year-old and using language that is borderline pornographic to do so:
When your body is glistening with sperm
late at night on Skype,
I imagine the goals you score on the field,
slim buddies holding you the way I never can,
feeling your sweat the way I never can.
Try to mail me your briefs some day,
I swear to love them like a good Skype “dad.”
Right away this poem could seriously alienate the reader, and quite possibly enrage them to the point of throwing the book in the trash. I mean, put bluntly, we’re reading about statutory rape. Yes, it’s a fantasy, but a line of poetry like, “or your hair at its longest and brownest and most pubescent” can still unnerve A LOT of people. The poem goes on in that vein for two stanzas, but then moves into other territory. This would have been a good place for an editor to step in and discuss how this poem—some of its lines and/or stanzas—might betray Frankel as a poet, his strengths, and the overall collection.
This poem is just one (albeit the most controversial) of many examples (some others are a whole section of biting limerick—disguised as an interlude—that feels out of place, and a five-page block poem, which reads like an excerpt from a larger piece of prose) where the use of an editor could have benefited Frankel, the book, and by association, the press.
Why do I assume there was no editor for Birth Mother Mercy? A couple reasons. First, there’s no editor accredited, which leads me to suspect no one filled the role. Second, the poems that are in the chapbook, My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black, appear as exact copies in Birth Mother Mercy. This suggests Lummox had no editor to offer possible changes the second time around when it came to publish the poems once again, which only begs the question yet again: Why should I buy the same poems twice? (Even the blurbs on the back of the two books are the same.)
Why is an editor so important? Their job is to help the poet shape their manuscript—to understand and support the poet’s voice, while at the same time offering a fresh perspective in order to ultimately build with the poet a collection that is the best representation of their work. The end result should be a polished manuscript that feels fulfilled—that feels labored over by more than just the poet themselves, but by editor(s) and publisher alike.
Alex M. Frankel is a talented poet and puts good work out there, but Birth Mother Mercy is an awkward representation of his strengths, especially with My Father’s Lady, Wearing Black situated as the more attractive older sibling. Perhaps if some different (possibly editorial) choices were made with Birth Mother Mercy, the collection would stand out more to me as masterful than mishmash.
Reviewed by Eric Morago