Review by Martin Abramson
PART MIRTH, PART MURDER
by Dan Giancola.
Street Press, New York, 2006
$12.00, 56 pp, Paper
Dan Giancola, who has worked summers as a laborer, carpenter, clerk, and caretaker among a multitude of manual jobs; and spent the school years as instructor and now professor at colleges in Eastern Long Island, thoroughly refutes the old canard about those who teach. The poetic mastery Mr. Giancola demonstrated in his previous collection, Songs from the Army of the Working Stiffs, are, like fine wine, aged and matured in the present volume.
As the title suggests, the poems are grouped in two sections labeled respectively Mirth and Murder. They are separated by an intermezzo called Bedtime Suite in which the author expresses the tenderness and profundity of fatherhood. However, as I have a limited space to review this book, I propose to begin with the last and to my mind, the most moving section, Murder.
The philosopher Giles Deleuze writes of “philosophy at the edge of chaos” and later extends the concept to writing at the edge of chaos. He is not so much interested in formal systems of language, as in the areas where it deterritorializes, frays and breaks apart; seeing this as a productive, affirmative process that makes new thinking possible, rather than a destructive mechanism. He values the edges where language stutters and begins to fragment because in so doing, it opens into the universe of dark energy (my interpretation) which flows into the writing, illuminating and energizing it. These are processes which Mr. Giancola understands very well and uses to signal advantage in his best poems.
Elegy for Dan Murray, set during a memorial reading in a noisy bar, illustrates this:
our voices wander
like lost explorers
through your poems
and die in the din
the amp croaks a final syllable
In Labor Day, the lawn of a beach house slopes down…
below a flag yanking
its lanyard like a guard dog
on the deck a telescope
poses like a heron.
Overhead a cormorant
a dark thought passing…
In What Do You Know About Corpses and Gold?:
Day lilies send forth flames
on slender green wicks
that gutter at dusk
January is the poem and the month…
tally their hurt
on spreadsheets of fog
Meditation on a Moon Jelly is a minor miracle that begs comparison with Moore’s Octopus and Bishop‘s The Fish. The poetic camera, with all its intricate lenses perfectly aligned, focuses on this nearly transparent organism and finds in its crystal vacancy and exfoliate “cellophane” pulsations, a mandala for the silence of a preconscious world.
They gather light
like ice & disappear, itinerant
oracles portending clarity’s emptiness,
zen ciphers even gulls eschew.
And Mr. Giancola effortlessly repeats this feat with poems like Slugs, Ecology and Vivarium: studies that peer deeply into the universe of living things and ferret out the secret filaments of experience. Ecology is a perfect example. In complexity, Giancola finds Mozartian simplicity: “A vine’s aim? Climb.” And so they do with the sole purpose of strangling a tree. And after they are hewn down and strewn around…
on the yard’s green page
they scribble winter…
in loopy script
that’s all too human
In The Gate, the sleeping poet, tracking through wilderness runs across a rustic gate that in dream’s frustration evades his every effort to pass. Reminiscent of the Kafka story of a man who waits his entire life for a door to open, it symbolizes a crime that needs atonement: to whit, the youthful killing of a deer with bow and arrow. It is only by entering in imagination, the actual bleeding wound he had inflicted, that the author is able to pass through the gate, learn “what man I was” and find “a world to live in.”
In Eels, we witness a boy’s earliest memories of a mother-goddess
barefoot with bucket & spear
on barnacle rocks, singing
of her life as a bird, as a fish
in that world out of which
we are born
The Oak “grows in the wind,/taking the shape/of its trouble”. Indeed, the profusion and precision of natural imagery throughout this collection would be stunning even without the insights and revelations to which they point.
In the first section, Mirth, Mr. Giancola indulges his interests and ordinary experiences. There are some pieces that focus on athletics such as Little League and The Beehive which describes the dangerous exhilaration of mountain climbing. Others are clearly physical: Sciatica, which elevates the clinical to the mystical; Sunbather and The Fat War, both ironic studies of physical vanity, in the former, leading to cancerous horror. Crowns, examines an unpleasant visit to the dentist again inspiring a confession of vanity and fear of aging. In Haircut, the poet’s youthful visage with abundant hair and ponytail, mocks his tonsure which he orders cut to the bone thus hiding his receding hairline, only to reveal “my father’s face”. We share the commuter’s experience on that Machiavellian form of transportation portrayed in: Riding the Long Island Railroad.
There are some scathing sketches of people as in Neighbor, wherein a lonely woman is epitomized by the riding mower that constitutes her raison d‘etre; or Terrible Swift Sword which dramatizes the plight of a district piano teacher whose long-rehearsed fourth-grade chorus barely mumbles the chosen ode before an audience of snickering parents. In Passion Party at the Broken Down Valise, a harrowing slide show of drunken people are seen trying to have fun and hook-up at a bar “to end a month of loneliness”. There follows a grostesque display of sex-dolls, dildoes and erotica. It’s Long Island’s corner of The Waste Land.
It goes without saying, that an English professor who teaches creative writing will employ all the poetic techniques with old-hand mastery. They are woven into the warp and woof of these poems and I leave it to the reader to tease them out. Ditto the diction. The true joy of these poems lies elsewhere…in the ironic but accurate depiction of gullible people trying to adjust to modern modalities, in the author’s personal confessions with which the reader cannot help but empathize…but pre-eminently in the brilliant fusion of image and idea which generates the explosive power we like to call inspiration.