Isn't It Romantic? John Popielaski. The Texas Review Press. Huntsville, Texas. 2012.
Winner, 2011 Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize
Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is what Today's book of poetry is currently reading for non-poetic giggles. A real chuckle, that old Genghis Khan was not kidding around out there on those steppes.
So when I opened John Popielaski's Isn't It Romantic? last night and saw the Great Khan prancing around in the first poem I figured serendipity and history were both playing with me.
But Popielaski isn't playing, he is playful. These poems are easy access gems, erudite and keen.
Saturday, October, lead slug loaded
in my father's Remington, my brother
and my friend took cover when I chose
my uncle's Monte Carlo, junked
but still in one piece, rusting, resting
in the sunlight, in the weeds.
Reading Hemingway years later, I remembered
how the trigger quietly resisted,
how the butt let loose and kicked
with mule force at my shoulder,
how the barrel leapt and the explosion
shook a snakeskin from the wheel well.
We marveled for a minute at the blast hole
we could fit our fists through, knelt and peered
across the bench seat to the daylight
of the exit wound, grew large
with such destruction and reloaded
as we strode like new men toward a Pinto.
Popielaski understands the silent rules of men, the dark foreboding of failure looming over unspoken transactions. He knows that the smiling neighbour might not always smile. But Today's book of poetry is on to Popielaski, we see an underlying optimism spiralling to the surface all through Isn't It Romantic?, or it could just be Popielaski's wit winnowing towards sunlight.
Elegy for Kenny Bighead, 39
If you're inclined toward admiration
for this man whose prized possession
was the bottle-cap collection
he'd amassed since he began
the steady drinking in the ninth grade
like the rest of us,
I'll have to pigeonhole you
as an optimist, not cockeyed
necessarily but as a person
who, despite these rouged cheeks
and this silk tie on this torso,
sees the bright side even
as his mother, an Italian,
trembles in the front row, dabbing
hopelessly at eyes that won't obey.
We tripped once at a Dead show
fifteen years ago this month
at RFK in Washington, our seats
a tier down from the nosebleeds,
and I wondered then what someone
in the anti-psychedelic field
of HVAC repair and installation
on Long Island saw in that
environment of glow sticks
and ecstatic dance and shared belief
in the redemptive power
of a band's extended jams.
It wasn't cool to ask.
And we diverged, I heard,
I heard, I heard about his progress
toward decline, the morning six packs
and the nights he still parked in
the power trails, the dense glow
of the seamless joints that made him
sense the inarticulate expression
of the cosmos in the ordinary
objects that, when he was younger,
he attempted on occasion to explode,
and no one whom I know was too
surprised when they were told,
but even knowing what we know
it is surreal to see him
dressed like this, embalmed,
supine among the flowers, mourned here
by we ironists, who afterward
will drink to him and shake our heads
like wizened sages at his passing.
Isn't It Romantic? is an entertaining romp from a Walt Whitman loving devotee, a poet with a love/hate relationship to ancient Sumeria because they discovered alcohol.
What Popielaski seemingly does best is to make fine poems out the minutiae of everyday life by making the necessary connections available to the reader at every turn. We understand.
I watched a line of ants last night
for hours instead of going
with my wife to visit friends
and wondered how the scent
of pheromones could organize
this guided missile of a march,
could summon loyal subjects,
wordless, from the woods.
The queen, I gathered, lounged
behind a cedar shingle just below
the eave, my cocked ear
picking up the crunch and rustle
of her bored realm, sawdust flashlit
in a spider's web my proof
her moving in was problematic.
Ortho's poison powder tapped out
on the corner of the step
was carried up by workers,
unsuspecting, a decision
as destructive as the Trojans'
to admit the Horse.
I did not burn a city down last night
but knew, according to the label,
things were not well in the nest.
This morning, casualties
are strewn, and I imagine,
morally, it's best to crush
the twitchers and the ones
who run in circles, clutching
larvae in their mandibles,
trying to regain a center,
but I know I am no better
than the realistic soldier
who persuaded Hector's widow
to hand her only child over
to the mercy of a quick fall
from the parapet, still high.
Both Saint Francis of A. and E. Hemingway darken Popielaski's doors, coyotes and wolves loom in the shadows competing for imaginary space, and John Popielaski skillfully and lovingly gets it all down. He still believes we have a chance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Popielaski was born in Port Jefferson Station, New York, and attended the State University of New York at Stony Brook and American University. He is the author of A Brief Eureka for the Alchemists of Peace (Antrim House) and O, Captain, which won the 2006 Ledge Press Poetry Chapbook Award. He lives in Portland, Connecticut, and spends time at his camp in Maine.
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