Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

Two Books from Albany

Distant Kinships
Anthony Bernini
A.P.D. (2002) 64 pages
ISBN 0-9714631-2-3

Three Sides to the Looking Glass
Rachel Zitomer
A.P.D. (2004) 16 pages
ISBN 0-9714631-3-1

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

According to Dan Wilcox, Albany, New York, is an almost mythical place where "Every day is Poetry Month." Once upon a time, the town almost seemed to revolve around a converted White Castle hamburger joint, located at the corner of Central Avenue and Lark Street, and re-christened the QE2. The Q might entertain its patrons with James Carroll reading his "Basketball Diaries" on one week, the hottest local punk band the next, and beat hanger-on Herbert Hunke the next after that. Allen Ginsberg read there. Its honored guests, on any given night, might include Mike Tyson and Rory Holloway, Lyn Lifshin (undoubtedly touting the film documentary of her life story), or any number of lesser local luminaries. Just a few doors away, the likes of Pete Seeger might be seen, on any given afternoon, exiting the storefront of The Social Justice Center. Dan would assuredly be present, in the midst of it all, sporting his trademark beret, discussing his latest projects and generally pumping up the ambient energy level.

The Social Justice Center cohort, Tom Nattell, managed and produced by far the biggest poetry event of the year: The Readings Against the End of the World. The Readings were a 24-hour Earth Day event. Many of the patrons arrived early with sleeping bag under arm. At its height it was a mixture of poetry readings, Native American and other ethnic and alternative cultural exhibitions, theater and dance. Political ranting was encouraged. The Readings passed into legend well before The Q.

Between Earth Days, The Q hosted the premiere monthly poetry open-mic in the region. The goth back room, draped in black and cobwebs, and sporting a horseshoe bar, served for all events, the open-mic included. The mode of dress included everything from magenta hair and combat boots to leathers to business suits to silk shirts and ascots.

With the passing of The Q the energy of the local poetry scene seems to have dissipated for a time. Some two years ago it seems to have begun to recover. It is spread out a bit more now. The open-mic scene has returned to the legendary Caffé Lena, in nearby Saratoga. A new bookstore on Lark Street, in Albany, and a new café in the historical Stockade district of Schenectady figure prominently in press releases. An old connection with Woodstock, New York, seems to have been revived.

Somewhere amongst all of the above, Dan Wilcox began A.P.D.: "The Alternative Press for Albany's Poets." Details are hard to come by. He refuses even to reveal what the letters A.P.D. stand for. In one press release it stands for "Another Pleasant Day," in another "All Poets Die," in yet another "Alternating Poetic Device." The trope is vintage Wilcox.

Anthony Bernini, the author of Distant Kinships, is another long time patron of the Albany poetry scene. The choice of Bernini over the names that have been more prominent for so long on the open-mic scene is surprising. It appears that Wilcox has tried, with this volume, to stress the written text over the spoken voice.

Bernini's volume begins unpropitiously. The poet has attempted to forge sophisticated images for otherwise simple poems. The images only occasionally succeed. As a rule, however, they succeed at muddling the simplicity which might otherwise recommend the poems. The formal poems tend to be heavily end stopped, without modulation and one contains an unnecessary word inversion.

The middle portion of the book abandons the attempt at simplicity and openly attempts a metaphysical poetry. This is the style of poetry Sam Johnson once famously described, in which: "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together..." Three poets, during the reigns of the early Stuart kings, consistently wrote remarkable poems in the style. Scores more made the attempt and failed.

What makes metaphysical poems so daunting is the fact that the distance between a resounding success and a tacky juxtaposition of bric-a-brac can be immeasurably small. Success requires an intellect which almost qualifies as a sense separate in itself. Anything less tends to result in grating, if not ludicrous, poems.

Although Bernini has sought to reach well beyond his grasp in these poems, there are a number of nicely turned fragments. In "Moment at Mendocino":

The dirt road blooms a smiling boy.

The road is a stem. At a distance the boy is a small indistinct point, a bud. As the boy walks closer he grows larger and opens up into recognizable features. Sadly, this remarkable image is soon lost, within the boundaries of one short poem, among dozens of images that try much harder and succeed much less.

In "Pantheist Humbled By A God With Hairy Arms" the poet speaks of the twisted car wrecks in a junkyard as "a Gordian disjunction." In "Below The Conklingville Dam" a woman whose property has been sacrificed to make way for the Sacandaga Reservoir:

...will grow small, wait nearby
like the mice who trail behind the thresher
knowing there is something left to harvest.

The poem is the most successful from the middle section of the book. Still, metaphor is piled on metaphor and the effect of the better lines is difficult to make out and harder to hold onto.

If we can say that the poems from page 32 to the end of the volume constitute the "last section" of the book, the last section is written by a wiser and more capable poet. Poems such as "Survivors," "Someone Is Laughing" and "Top Of The Wheel" are quietly well written. The metaphors are less densely packed together hence more effective. In "Ground View Of A Dying Soldier," the protagonist struggles to push himself back up to his feet:

...holding off the sweet patient ground.

The observation is not lost among a babble of competing images. It has the kind of pathos that tends to stay with a reader.

From the textual evidence, there is reason to believe that the de facto "sections" of Anthony Bernini's Distant Kinships may represent the phases of his progress as a poet. Be that as it may, he has managed to close strong. Interleaved among his travels-at-large in the ancient and modern world he has also given the Adirondack region a little richer map with poems in which the Sacandaga Reservoir, Cayuga Lake, the Poestenkill River and the more general landscape appear.

The open-mic scene is by no means the only game in town. The State University at Albany is associated with a considerably more august writing program—The New York Writers Institute—and a schedule of readings in which the authors' names command more wide ranging respect. Being the capitol of the state that is attached to New York City, as it were, the governor himself hosts bi-annual awards readings for state poet and state writer.

The university has always been a source of fresh blood for the open-mic circuit and fresh customers for the bars. Ph.D. student Rachel Zitomer has found her way into the A.P.D. catalogue by this route. Her poem Three Sides to the Looking Glass is the most recent pamphlet in The Bob Kaufman Series. The poem is a sort of Post-Modern-Walt-Whitman-of-Albany yawp that ends with the city's annual Tulip Festival. A swatch of the post-modernist aspect:

We are permitted only to gesture a way into
an outside, or pre-
structuring syntax
the conditions of renewal:
a displaced syllable, word
then a shift in jaw, throat
the lips skip over, tongue absently covering new distances.

From the latter-day Walt Whitman aspect, the following catalogue:

for Bob waxing poetic on Earl's sideways-walking dog
Rich in a junkyard school bus
A.C. cupid-bashing
Nancy dreaming a student in jail
Leo dreaming library girls
Dan, shit, Dan's shirtless and wearing a bra again
and Mary's telling us why poetry

The attractiveness of the poem comes from its energy and its ironic innocence. It has been written again and again by a thousand university students and we love it every time.


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