Sunday, March 14, 2010

Steve Meador's "Throwing Percy from the Cherry Tree"

Traded books with Steve after befriending each other on Facebook. As the title of his book suggests, Throwing Percy is a collection of poems about childhood. Percy is a cat, not a boy. I wish Percy were a boy. Not that the book is not already filled with cruelty and pain--a drunken and abusive father, playground bullying, parental discord, a war veteran of a grandfather, sexual awakening--but that it would have been a little more surprising. The poems wear their honesty and simplicity like a badge of honor. They aim to tell the truth in an engaging and accessible way. It is a worthy aim, if not very ambitious.

The opening of the first poem is representative of the style of the book:

The Montgomery Ward in Beckley
seemed the ninth or tenth Wonder of the World
to someone who had only known shopping
at the stark commissaries on base,
and once at a cluttered Ben Franklin Five and Dime,
I fluttered through its two levels,
touched and played with as much as I could.
(from "Bleeding Madras")

The determined use of proper names specifies the setting and the aesthetics. I like how the Wonder of the World sets up the fantasies, and disillusionments, of childhood in the rest of the book. But the adult-sounding "someone who had only known shopping" clashes with the poem's subject. Commissaries and fluttered are interesting words, but little is made of them in the rest of the poem. "touched and played with as much as I could" is just weak writing.

The boy finds in the store The Bleeding Madras Shirt, which changes color when washed. He buys it and wears it every day, to get ahead of other boys, but his triumph is punctured when a kid asks him if he has only one shirt. That wound we can all identify with, but I find myself asking why is the shirt called "Madras" as well as "bleeding"? There for its exotic connotations, I guess, and so interchangeable with Sulawesi, Kabul and Lagos. One may defend the poem by arguing that the boy, like most boys, do not care where Madras is, and so the poem's indifference is reflective of that age. That may be so, but I wish for some indication of the adult speaker's awareness. The lack of a more mature, or more complex, perspective circumscribes the reach of the poem's pathos.

The most successful poem in the book comes out of a more mature consciousness and language. "Driving in Winter, 1960," the speaker's father passes through toll-booths that seem, in their light and warmth, like "harbors":

Twice along the way we drifted through
warm harbors, two booths of light,
one smelling of roast beef, the other apple pie.

My father dropped a quarter and it rolled to my feet.
I picked it up and placed it on the woman's soft skin.
The crunch of ice beneath the tires lost its voice.

Now, when I cannot dodge the solstice of solitude,
I think of the hearth on the turnpike,
the touch of the toll-taker's hand.

The language here is densely allusive though the diction remains simple. "The solstice of solitude" is a beautiful phrase, well earned by the poem's attention to the sensory experience, or, rather, sensory deprivation. The development from "harbors" to "hearth," aided appropriately by the woman toll-taker, is logical and conclusive. This is language plain yes, but also poetic.

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