Reviews, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009
Bedouin Books, Pamphlet Poets Series No. 2, 2009
Pamphlet, 27 pp., $7
Review by Cynthia Reeser
If you are an even sometime-reader of poetry on the Web, the possibility that you have stumbled across a poem (or two, or three…) by Howie Good is pretty high. His recent chapbook, the second in the Bedouin Books Pamphlet Poet Series, is designed as—you guessed it—a pamphlet, the cover design reminiscent of a 1950s era pamphlet. For someone who appreciates both visual and tactile aesthetics, I adore the book, in design, font choice, and paper selection. And what’s between the pages is certainly no disappointment. Divided into two sections, the poems of Part I seem to be more concerned with the theme of absence, and Part II more with ways the world can be viewed—not to mention how it can be skewed. The poems of Part II look through slightly different lenses.
Good’s poems are often about the heart, whether directly or indirectly, and the various ways it can break and not-quite-break―the ways it informs mind and psyche and perception. To ground this reasoning, a look at a poem from Part I like “the daughters of man”: a father (in a dream-like vista) realizes that his daughters love him, sure, but “they love other things more”; or in a poem like “the heart breaks down like a mechanical device,” the dreamscape purports the speaker’s (dreamer’s) fears through a series of nonsensical associations. An example from the latter reads:
I pat my pockets as if searching for cigarettes, or, if not cigarettes, symptoms. One side of me is cold and dark; the other side, cold and bright. I exchange melancholy glances with the deer head on the wall. The repairman says he’ll be right back. Quiet, I say, the baby’s sleeping.
Read as a dreamscape reflection of the projected fears of the psyche, the title begins to make sense, serving as the adhesive for the broader metaphor at work.
But as much as the poems are about the heart, they are also about ghosts, about absence and the space that is created around things no longer present. For example, in “dog years,” the dreamscape trope is that there is a war; the dogs, having run away, stand in for symbols of, perhaps, what is lost during war. Yet, in this case,
Few people seem to notice that they’re gone. Three times a day, if not more, their former owners take empty leashes out for a walk. Just this morning the old widow stopped to let a boy on his way to school bend down and scratch behind the ears of what wasn’t there.
The vacancy of something and the vaccum it leaves in its absence is represented as a physical projection of memory, as with the empty dog leashes and “the woman who lived […] with her shadow” from the title poem. In keeping with the theme of absence, sometimes it is what isn’t there, what is not said, that is most powerful. In “couplet,” a poem comprised simply of the couplet, “Swans sing before they die. / At the school the late bell has already rung” the poem is resonant with implication, with what is not written, but yet, by its very omission, exists.
Nearly all of the poems are resonant with the landscape of dream. One outstanding example of this is “almost night,” which has not only the fractured reasoning, but also the tone and surprise, of a dream: “I find a door in the wall, a place for a drink. There’s only one other patron. He might be a slaughtering angel.” This poem and others resonate with the subconscious mind’s rendering and inscription of history’s past atrocities, whose imprints are stamped indelibly on the human spirit and psyche.
Many of the poems of Part II could work well as flash fiction. The poem “abandoned but still burning” has a conversational tone that would lend itself well to that form. Others, like “the pedagogy of the possessed” and “the death of the book” would also find themselves at home in a fictional format; these particular two, however, are interesting for another reason: they offer metacommentary (in the metapoetical sense) that is both self-effacing and humorous.
Good’s work often has a Kafka-esque sensibility, but with a contemporary spin. The poet’s work is imminently self-aware, educated, and funny. But it is also possessed of a deep intellect that can catch you off-guard, that sneaks up on you. Good’s poetry knows where it has been, and where it is going (to make a non-poetic literary reference). More importantly, it is work that situates itself within a poetics of its own designation, understanding that in absence, in the space around us, is history, is a past that is still present with us and within us, that informs—silently, invisibly, sometimes stealthily—everything that makes up the conscious mind.