Thirty-for-Sixty by Al Pittman

Thirty-for-Sixty coverThis is going to sound bad, but my favorite thing about this book is the way I can unfold the flaps on the sturdy paper covers, tuck them into each other, and stand the book spine-up in the shape of an A-frame. That’s the kind of sturdiness I expect from a book published in Newfoundland, as part of a Newfoundland Poetry Series, the last volume of a major Newfoundland poet and playwright published before his death by the press he helped found in Newfoundland. My faith was soon tested by the book’s contents, though, which I found to be riddled with typos, making it seem rather ramshackle by the time I got through.

The poems are narrative, autobiographical, and apparently designed for an audience that laughs easily, which is of course an admirable trait in audiences. A poem called “Gnomes” describes the blossoms of an unnamed tree at night:

They have red or purple
hair and green beards. And terribly
twisted faces. They have no bodies.
They are grotesque, gargoyled heads
hanging and swinging in the mild, wild
south-west summer wind.

As much as I like things floral and full
of leaves, I’d not go near those blossoms
without a weapon to combat their threats
now or any night like this.

Whoever strolls, staggers, or stumbles by
will be devoured before they know they
are gone or what it was that ended them.

And so on. This is the kind of poetry that gives the lie to the prevalent notion that Billy Collins’ work is unsophisticated.

For all its simplicity and grating slyness, though, the book did have images that appealed to me. For example, in the otherwise unremarkable “Wanderlust,” I liked:

Coming away from love is a difficult
descent from the summit of yourself
back to base camp and the basics
that await you there.

I liked the whole of “A River Runs Through Her,” in which the protagonist spies on his 83-year-old mother out fishing on a boat as darkness comes on. It ends:

Though she is my mother
I know nothing of this woman.
I know only that a river runs through her.

And I splash in her blood like a fish.

That last example shows one way to make simplicity and apparent artlessness really work in a poem: by introducing an unexpectedly bizarre or surrealist image and catching the reader off-guard. “The Joy of Cooking” was the stand-out poem in this regard. It starts off with the protagonist lamenting that he can’t always procure cinnamon in Newfoundland, and so can’t rival the seductive powers of Michael Ondaatje’s cinnamon peeler. Then it takes a sudden lurch into stranger seas:

For this uncertain occasion
I’ve prepared an adequate meal.
John the Baptist’s head has been marinating
in the fridge for three days.
Now it’s on the table and Salome Smith
and I are ready to dine.

It promises not to be another wasted weekend.

Tentatively she takes the tiniest taste.
Then the lovely Ms. Smith looks at me
(seduction written all over) and says
“This is delicious”.

Needless to say, if the whole book were like this, I’d be a much bigger fan.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

5 Replies to “Thirty-for-Sixty by Al Pittman”

  1. Looking for debate, Dave? You are wrong on every count, in my opinion. I give you a book that is dear to my heart, that illustrates the Newfoundland spirit, from a poet who has won numerous poetry and book awards, widely recognized as probably the best poet to come out of Newfoundland and one of the great poets from Canada, and the best you can say about it is that you like the way cover stands up? Get over yourself. You’ve just lost a fan. And by the way, John the Baptist was probably a goat. Hardly surreal. Just cultural.

    1. Hi Pamela, I’m sorry you didn’t care for the direction my personal reader-response took, but I stand by it, and I think with this as with most things cultural there is plenty of room for differences of opinion. I’ve always been curious how these “best/greatest” decisions are arrived at, but as I’m sure you must realize by now, such judgements have very little influence on my own — I know too many cases here in the States of writers with relatively minor gifts rising to the top (though quite often those receiving the accolades do deserve them).

      I considered not posting anything at all last night, but I didn’t have enough time to read and absorb another book by that point, and I thought I owed it to you to read the whole book and see if I could find something I liked. If I’d known the book was a personal favorite of yours, I certainly would’ve refrained and just skipped a day. I’m awfully sorry I’ve upset you.

  2. I don’t know this writer, though clearly he is known… Was he primarily a playwright?

    The gnomes sound like the flying heads of Mohawk mythology.

    I detect some sort of pattern here, for whatever reason. You are drawn to women’s writing. You find it stronger, more interesting. I’ll be intrigued to see what your conclusions are when you look back at the end of the month.

    As somebody who has both read and been on the receiving end of reviews, I would say to Pamela that what they say is true: any coverage is better than silence, and that is often all that poetry receives. And Dave has given enough here that his readers can draw a different conclusion–and people are not quite sheep and are, oddly, often allured by a bad review. There is some part of us that must be cold to personal relations when we are reviewed or when someone we like is reviewed. It’s just not personal, even though it feels–sometimes deeply so–that way.

    1. Hi Marly – It may be true that women are doing more innovative writing these days; I don’t know. I’ll be blogging more women’s books than men’s this month for the simple reason that, aside from Howie Good, that’s who responded to my request for review copies at the beginning of March. Over the course of the past year I did get review copies of books by Steven Sherrill, William Trowbridge, Gabriel Welsch and Matt Mason, all of which I’ve already read at least in part and will be re-reading this month. I also ordered Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio after reading a selection at Poetry Daily last month, so that’s in the pile, too (but it’s going to be an all-day read).

      1. Yes, who can fathom the sea of writing that’s lapping at our doors? Maybe it’s the writers, maybe it’s you, maybe it’s the luck of the draw crossed with your sensibility. Etc.

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