Dante's House. Richard Greene. Signal Editions/Vehicule Press. Montreal, Quebec. 2013.
The title poem of Richard Greene's fourth book of poetry, Dante's House, does take Today's book of poetry back to Sienna and the Il Palio. And that is a great place to visit.
There is no feeling quite like the feeling one gets in Sienna. It is where the old world, the really old world, meets the new world. No city glows quite like Sienna when that sun sets all orangeyred over the roof tiles and the Tuscan hills.
The other eleven poems in Dante's House gave me jitterbug feet. I had to get up and walk about my house after reading each of these poems.
These narratives fully, completely, inhabit the reader. You are in prison. You are at Yankee Stadium. You are in Haiti.
My friend works medium security and says
of his mad charges, 'You can't be angry.
They're sick -- shouldn't be here.' To the near-sane,
he doles punishments when 'Fuck you, screw'
is prelude to a shank -- some soup spoon snatched
and ground against the whetstone of the bars,
a razor blade bound into a pencil's
eraser tip, or merely the handle
of a toothbrush made murder-one sharp.
And strange things: back in stir after
his biopsy a man threatened to force a pen
through the incision and crush his liver
unless given Tylenol Three. He settled for
Extra Strength and the promise of a doctor:
'I was just joking,' he added meekly,
knowing threats of self-harm bring sanctions too --
days apart in an observation cell,
diaper-clad and deprived of any thing
imagination could turn into a noose.
Others would cut themselves or even rip
open the skin and muscle with their hands;
one inmate slashed deeper than his scrotum,
poured blood and half his entrails on the floor;
luckless, he missed the artery and lived.
Some lifers, almost done, can no longer mount
the stairs to the range or have left their
wits at the scene -- time's muddled fugitives
who could not pick themselves from a line-up.
Beyond correction, a man with one leg
weighs 500 pounds and may no longer lift
himself. Torpid, he pisses and shits among
the blankets, cannot wash or move,
cuffed to a history of offences,
manslaughter (released) and then child rape.
His heart and kidneys wind down -- my friend,
tall as a linebacker, joins a staggering
scrimmage of guards and paramedics,
as they hoist the stretcher down stairwells
and across a lighted courtyard to the gate
where an ambulance waits to parole him.
Green so thoroughly inhabits each world he explores that the poems become visceral experience for the reader.
These poems are visits to strange places, odes to friendship, musings on a "winter's God who mingles grace and grief." This is one of those cases where Today's book of poetry just liked listening to Richard Greene talk.
In Memory of James Gray Watson
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
- Shakespeare, Sonnet 60
New on the ground in Tulsa, you fought off
the boyishness of the newly hired prof
with a bow tie: you said, 'I want to look
different from the students,' and some old book
worm said, 'It makes you look different from
anyone', and so it did, added to the sum
of the things that made you -- the things clung to
by friends as now the sun-shadow takes you.
Once you showed me your surehanded father
surgeoning in photographs. A brother
and a son of yours took up scalpel and clamp
while your work lay under a table lamp,
five books mapping Yoknapatawpha,
the slippery Snopes and what Sartoris saw,
and, in the time I knew you, Matthiessen --
always gags on Killing Mr. Watson.
Austin was our place; din makers
over manuscripts, our jokes and whispers,
shenanigans through bookish afternoons
drawing reproachful looks over half-moons.
In the evenings, there was Johnny Walker Red
and things men say as they leave them unsaid.
Yet, clear spirit, you counselled me by poem,
recommended Frost for troubles back home:
you sent me to 'An Old Man's Winter Night',
while, to me, friendship was your gift outright.
Yesterday, your son checked your email,
read you my silly note, conveyed a hail
from your sickbed, sent your love, spoke plainly:
'In short, his condition worsens daily.'
Just pain and sleep: chemo becomes morphine
and seventy years of being have been:
I substitute have seen you for will see.
Tenses shift and I prepare for memory.
There is a tender elegance in the way Richard Greene looks at the world through his poet's gaze.
There is a little bit of everything, awe and anger, beauty and brass. The one thing you won't see in a Richard Greene poem is naivete. He is never that.
Greene is worldly without being pompous, these erudite and articulate poems and never showy, they're knowledgeable.
Black and white and nationally portable,
a TV occupies half the kitchen table,
serves up The Edge of Night or Coronation Street,
as my mother, among copies of Vogue
and Chatelaine and The Daily News,
lays oils on the rough side of Masonite.
The brushes seem never to need replacing,
and the tubes of Winsor and Newton go
from year to year, the same ones never empty:
manganese blue hue, phthalo turquoise,
cobalt chromite, viridian, and terre verte,
purple lake, raw umber light, and Payne's grey.
Her gardens are decorative and terrible
as vined or beasted letters of a manuscript,
and undersea, whales and plankton and octopi
of equal proportion, as when sleeping
shortens the gap between dead and living.
Mind always elsewhere - on Adam Trask
and Mike Karr in mobbed up Monticello,
on Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner,
the Barlows, all that marriage and murder
at Rover's Return - her automatic
touch making intricacies on the board,
shapes of memory from which she can
never turn away - a tiny brother
throttled by whooping cough, her father
weeping in the pantry, all the dailiness
of death in 1941. Thirteen then and never
right afterwards, except perhaps in oils.
Today's book of poetry liked visiting Dante's House and felt right at home. Mr. Greene makes it all look so easy even when he knows life can be so sad.
ABOUT THE AUTHORRichard Greene teaches Creative Writing and British Literature at the University of Toronto. His most recent biography Edith Sitwell: Avant-garde Poet, English Genius  was widely acclaimed, and he has published three collections of poetry, including Boxing the Compass , which won the Governer General's Award for Poetry. He lives in Cobourg, Ontario.
Mississauga's National Poetry Month Event, 2012
Video: Anna Yin
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