Saturday, April 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Psychic Killed by Train, by Ron Overton

Psychic Killed by Train, by Ron Overton. Published 2002 by Hanging Loose Press, 231 Wyckoff St., B’klyn, NY 11217. 111 pages. $13.00.
Reviewed by Martin Abramson. First published in Book/Mark, a small press review.

Out of sheer inertia, I had put off work on a new review for this periodical for months, and that hiatus would have extended indefinitely if Mindy hadn’t wildly upped the ante by sending me Ron Overton’s Psychic Killed by Train. I was immediately arrested by topics as vivid and lurid as the six o’clock news itself. Fragmented strips of murder, mischief and mayhem ripped from papers and broadcasts provide key metaphors and pulsating details that Overton projects into a mirror-maze of reflections and introspections, simultaneously weaving them into jazz tapestries. Wanting to write about these fascinating inventions was more of an involuntary reflex than a conscious decision.
Mr. Overton’s poems evoke the modern zeitgeist touching on subjects that range from subways to jet planes, Moscow to Mexico, Big Sur to 68th Street, baseball to traffic jams, private eyes to politicians. I could write a more extensive introductory appreciation of this work, but I’d only be rephrasing the astute observations of Mr.Asekoff found on the back cover. Accordingly, I will simply pick out a representative bouquet of poems and try to describe why I admire them.
In Real Life the layout of Los Angeles viewed from a ‘chopper following O.J.’s Bronco is the over-arching metaphor. Pieces of the reporter’s comments are ‘lifted’ to key into the poet’s final response:

as you can see
it's too dark to see

O yes
O yes

In Chemical Intervention images of crime and social disintegration fuse with modern maladies and the drugs we use to treat them. It all causes the “ringing in my ears” and makes the author worry about how much of the outside chaos is filtering through his “blood/brain barrier” bringing terror, guilt and perhaps, madness.
In Traffic Report, New York area mayhem, centering on the Long Island Expressway (the L.I.E.) and extending out to a chemical fire engulfing I-80 in New Jersey, lists the carnage of crashes, fires and jack-knifed tractor-trailer tie-ups across the landscape; all serving to delineate a claustrophobic hell of bumper-to-bumper gridlock that blocks any hope of anyone reaching a destination.
Weather Channel flawlessly merges the psyches of the weather reporters with their subject-matter: “…celebrities of rain and wind shear” they wish us no harm but cannot prevent the sparkle in their eyes as they report a hurricane “rollicking in circles just east of the Leeward Islands”. Formerly high school nonentities who spent their free time in the library or the audio-visual club, they are now heroes of the storm who venture…

riding the whitecaps of prophecy,
striding spindrift reefs and archipelagoes,
they implore us to stay inside,
to huddle tightly
beneath the homeroom desk.

In Animal Planet the poet’s own inadequacies (“as usual, I’ve arrived too late”) are coupled with the downward fluctuations of the elephant population leading to a sense of doom for the latter and failure for the former. The elephants are overrun by civilization, their “old ritual, gutted of meaning--/ their swaying mass, their passivity, like huge clouds/ bumping the ground on a windless day.”
In 1 Dead 1 Injured, the poet goes contrapuntal quoting the news report of a collision, with the gory medical facts told in the odd lines, and, in the even, a narrator contemplating the (severed?) hands of a victim who had been a gifted pianist. The great power of this poem is in the manner in which the even and odd lines complement and comment on one another. After a few readings, the separate themes vanish and the piece is easily read as a continuous, monophonic, richly harmonic line of music.
In Semiotics, the linked formalisms of business deals and cars jockeying for position on the road prepares us, with a sense of dread, for the polite “bespectacled clerk…who meticulously stores/the body parts/ in the Westinghouse”.
In Why Tom Continually Runs After Jerry,” a long list of desultory reasons like: “Because of natural selection”; “Because some things never change”; “Because of dialectical materialism”; culminate in a stunning dénouement:

Because in the stopping and the stillness, he feels a black wind on his

Because in the stopping is the end of it
Because in the stillness is the end of it

What begins as a light-hearted movie critique of the 1940’s ambiance of Moon Over Miami, devolves into a mournful premonition of what those stars, movies, Miami and the country itself would become in later decades.
Noir, a dark foray into fatalism.
For the contemplative baseball fan, Baseball, Again should push all the right buttons. But if that’s not enough, one can forge onward to Future Considerations, Baseball I and Baseball II. On a related topic, Do You Have Prince Albert in a Can? revives memory-wisps of childhood summers and baseball cards packed in with “pink slabs of gum”.
The sports finale comes in the poem, Memorabilia. Covering hockey, baseball and football, it segues into the freakish and fantastic. The “Catalogue of Absence” treats of “records not broken, games played only in the imagination”. We are offered other bizarre mementoes like a “tear… from the Dead Eyes of Shoeless Joe Jackson.” “Bleak,” the author admits, “…but surely a Token preferred against/ the Shutout of Nothingness,/ the empty & abandoned Stadium of our Dreams.”
In A Man of the World, Overton presents a personal fantasy version of the debonair Parisian he would sometimes like to be. “…heavily accented/ always a cigarette dangling/ from its lip…” Seductive, but the sophistication rests on a vast foundation of bones; otherwise known as the history of Europe.
I sometimes skip a poem’s title and plunge right into the text. And I was glad to have done so for the poem on page 76 which Overton “found” in Warburton’s The Beginning of Writing::

Sumerians invent envelope

Rock art in Eastern Spain ceases
Phoenicians invent first complete alphabet
Picture writing appears suddenly in China

Chinese develop mail delivery system

And the title?---You’ve got Mail.

In a sense, all the works in this book are ‘found’, but a few are presented verbatim with any commentary or the need for it. Overton’s photocopy of a very early draft of Frost’s, Fire and Ice, complete with handwritten marginal notes and scansion marks, shows how immensely far the finished, flawless gem can be from the first amalgams of rock and pebble that are destined to produce it.
I’ll take subtle humor over broad anytime, which is why I like a poem called Compleynte: a scathing note penned by a wife? lover? which seems to explode the relationship; the last lines of the note predict that the author “will probably use it/ in some goddamn poem---” And these are also the last lines of the poem.
I hope these few examples will serve to express my pleasure in exploring this fine collection and will convince my readers to do likewise. Ron Overton keeps one finger on the pulse of the times and the other on the heart of being. If you like your philosophy set in city streets and served on paper plates with soda and hotdogs bought from a pushcart, this collection is a true banquet.

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