Chasing the ‘Phew’ Factor

 
Blue Colonial, David Roderick
[70pp, $14.00, The American Poetry Review]
The Last Person to Hear Your Voice, Richard Shelton
[109pp, $14.00, University of Pittsburgh Press]
 

I have reached a time of life (or is it a time of reading?) when all I seem to value is the incidence of a 'phew' factor, or, as others have expressed it, revealed experience which makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. Regardless of the informing and appreciative introduction by the distinguished poet Robert Pinsky, Blue Colonial (featuring poems on the colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts) contains very little of the 'oomph' of which I seek. This is not to underestimate the measured and sustained thoughtfulness of David Roderick's ' first book prize', but rather, to submit to undeniable feelings of deja vue almost throughout.
 
Thus, in 'The Execution of John Billington':
 
     That was it: the rope pulling taut, his spine jerking.
     Neck-burn, the end of the brilliant, breathing thing

     that was his body...
 
Or in 'Cordwood':
 
     My father told me it was hard
     to be a man...
 
Or in 'William Butten's Burial at Sea':
 
     On the ship they wonder
     how it feels to drop
     into the ocean,
     each second like a stone
     in your pockets as you start
     to descend, weight pulling
     you to the deeper swells of the sea.
 
In longing for the kind of original voice as exemplified in Berryman's Mistress Bradstreet,
one has to be satisfied with exceptions, whose whole never quite makes it through the highly conscientious endeavour; which is not to say that exceptions absolutely do not exist. Take this memorable line in 'Edward Winslow's Cure for Massasoit':
 
     When my tea passed his lips I knew
     he would not starve or shudder his life away.
 

The same difference seems to afflict my appreciation of Richard Shelton's The Last Person to Hear Your Voice in which a multitude of the expected is occasionally redeemed with lively and lovely lines, as in 'Getting On':
 
     There is the possibility that you will feel ok for a short time.
     A little bird told me that, the liar.
 
Or in 'Chicago';
 
     War all over now. Go home
     and eat a salami sandwich.'
 
And in 'Lugubrious' ('a man of sorrow'):
 
     He understands the abstract quality
     of grease. He praises the mad who live
     by the light of their own immaculate shadows.
     He knows what fog is doing in the cleavage
     of young hills. He recognises greed.'
 
Finally, there are moments in ' Yes Miss Emily' well worth recalling:
 
     sometimes I am nobody I ever heard of
     but I have clothes in the closet
     therefore I exist
     and I get used to it slowly'

          © Geoffrey Godbert 2007