May 2011

Josh Cook

poetry

Unsolicited Poems by David Rowe

Even people who don't read much poetry are familiar with poetry's personas: the characters projected onto poets by their readers or cultivated by the poets themselves, like the Hard Drinker, Hard Liver; the Spiritual Nature Poet; the Slam Poet; even the Cowboy Poet. These personas are a natural part of artistic expression in society, as readers and poets forge connections through the medium of the poem, whether a persona is an accurate reflection of the poet as a person or not. David Rowe, at least in his collection Unsolicited Poems, is very much a Hard Drinker, Hard Liver poet, tracing his poetic lineage back through the Beats to the original American wild man poet, Walt Whitman.

In pursuit of, or because of, this persona, Rowe's poems project an image of the poet hunched over the page, sweating out a killer hangover, cursing the woman who left him because he drove her away, and scratching at significance and meaning through images, lines, and words extracted from the very core of his being. Throughout the collection there is a constant sense of effort; the poems are saturated with the strain of the composition. This strain has two effects on the poems themselves; one negative and one positive.

Rowe's efforts are shown deficient when he grapples directly with his great predecessors. The weakest poems in the collection are those directly about or inspired by Whitman and Kerouac. Bringing the greats up, puts them in the reader's mind, and for all of Rowe's quality, he is no Whitman. Furthermore, there are many poems in the collection where Rowe has set himself some kind of poetic goal; there is a place whose spirit he wants to evoke, a person he wants to memorialize, a form he wants to tweak, or a “poetic experience” he wants to express, but too often these poems read like Rowe is smashing his fist against a puzzle piece that won't fit where he wants it to.

But sometimes Rowe smashes right through the table, right through the floor, right through the apartment below, right on through the earth, to reach some Luciferian beauty shining in the shards of what's left of language. Poems like “SATCHelMOuth Poem,” “Love Supreme,” and “Fit to Awaken Aurora Herself Are These Drunken,” push language and image to its challenging and beautiful limit. Her writes in “East Side Lounge”: “set plastic cups to trembling atop bottles of Lone Star / like lampshades in an old Pullman car / & there was the deadbeat Dad smoking a Dada cigar / from out of a calabash pipe,” and in “Fit to Awaken...”: “Of dippers big & small, exoskeleton of scorpion / & Orion the Hunter's rhinestone belt / Until Venus, that indecent docent, conducts us back home.” At his best, the writer Rowe most resembles, is not one of the patriarchs of American poetry, but Malcolm Lowry, whose prose in Under the Volcano is some of the most exquisite in English.

Rowe's most consistent strength is his ear for the music of poetry, especially on display in his poems that don't rhyme. All words have auditory relationships with each other, and Rowe excels at finding and using these relationships for subtle and dramatic effects. Though Rowe isn't a Slam Poet by any means, he could certainly blow the roof off a bar, should he happen to acquire a microphone and an audience in one.

Since the mainstream has, in many ways, come to the Beats, Bukowski, and other Hard Drinkers, and found ways to fetishize extreme lifestyles of drugs and booze and sex, poets writing from that persona are writing from a very weird place. What was once a radical statement against the limitations of conformity to typical existence, is now vicarious entertainment; a peep show instead of a protest. Rather than shocking us, Rowe's poems have become ways for us to imagine ourselves free enough to pass out on a park bench, without ever thinking about what that freedom means. That said, I'd rather read rehashes of Whitman, the Beats, and Bukowski than the pretend naturalists, substanceless minimalists, and hacks of whimsy that make up so much of the rest of mainstream poetry.

In a way, Rowe's collection can teach us about the mystery of greatness. Rowe can be beautiful and chaotic and sexy and sonorous. But Rowe is not a great poet. Whatever it is that takes an image from “an encryption of boots bottles and books / arrayed on the kitchen table / & Love Supreme's just another ashtray,” to “Centre of equal daughters, equal sons, / All, all endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old, / Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich / Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law, and Love,” isn't in Unsolicited Poems. That said, I wish there were more David Rowes writing poetry; good poets constantly looking beyond themselves for a kind of expression that is, by some mystery, beyond their reach. In short, when Rowe succeeds his poetry is brilliant, and when he fails, well, he fails at being Whitman.

Unsolicited Poems by David Rowe
Verna Press
ISBN: 098422811X
106 Pages