- Only the Strong Survive
96 Pages; Print, $14.95
In his New York Quarterly craft interviews, and in his seminal Poet’s Dictionary (1989), William Packard was an important teacher to many of this generations NYC poets, myself included. Some had the privilege of having him as their personal guide; among them are Sanford Fraser, Diana Goetsch, Tony Gloeggler, Shelley Stenhouse, Raymond Hammond, and a poet of the Bronx, Ted Jonathan.
Ted Jonathan’s previous collection, Bones and Jokes (2009), posses the barely harnessed fury of a boxer pounding a body bag in a clammy basement gym. That book’s cast of characters included joggers, barbers, drug pushers, bandits, hookers, and a letter-sorting serial killer.
His new book of poetry, Run, expands and deepens that material, as Jonathan exercises more control of form and language to achieve his signature blend of beauty and brutality, comedy shot through with pain, and a muscular, working class madness.
This poet’s objective isn’t to try to get something off his chest; he is driven to get hard won and life changing words into his reader’s head, by whatever means necessary. Or as Eldridge Cleaver said, “All the gods are dead except the god of war.”
There are pitch perfect verbal explosions:
Every inch as valiant as Achilles,Smokin’ Joe Frazier sat on his stoolAfter his trainer threw in the towel.The clash had been epic. I emptiedThe bottle, someone passed me a joint,The place stayed raucous, and if that ain’tInner-city you can kiss my ass.
That’s as close to poetic niceties as “the sole guy at / the Loews Paradise theater / …who wasn’t Black or Puerto Rican” needs to get to make his point: “I wanted to witness history.”
There’s an assured, episodic kind of memoir running through this slim book. For instance, in “Elementary School,” the narrator recalls learning about “Men with cool / names like Vasco / De Gama,” but also “boys in size-place / order, meant me / wanting to be taller” and
We could watch / my Jew, Jack Ruby / shoot to death / the 3 named goon /who shot to death / our golden President / on live television
That wise child turns into an appropriately cynical adult in “Decoder Poem.” Consider the first stanza:
When they say,I feel your painThey really mean—Even your painIs theirs to claim.
And the concluding three lines:
When they sayNo cause for alarmConsider suicide.
Among the many stand out poems in this collection are “Dominion,” “Reunion,” “The Paisley Shirt,” “Paul Janko,” “Protection,” “True Cool,” “advice to my unborn son,” and “The Love Fest Will Begin.”
After describing a shopping expedition with his “pretty and young” mother to Alexander’s department store on Fordham Road and the purchase of “two bargain bin paisley shirts,” Jonathan goes on,
When I wore one of the shirts to school, the jauntymale teacher announced to the entire class thatanother kid, Lucas Ortiz, and I were wearing identicalshirts, like he was shocked that 2 boys in the samecrowded working-class 4th grade Bronx classroomwould be sporting the same cheap shirt. The paisleyshirt my mother chose. Shielded by the fashionfaux pas, he pleasured in shaming us. My face flushedred heat. Shame trumped rage but I blurted, fuck you.And Lucas, who perhaps didn’t even care aboutThe teacher’s crack, had to outdo me, hurling a chair.But I didn’t blurt fuck you, and Lucas didn’t hurlA chair. Shame stuck to my gut, the shirt, to my back.
This is the opening of Jonathan’s brilliant “advice to his unborn son poem.” The first stanza provides the context for the collection’s one-word title.
if someone comesto you with the truthrun
brush with baking sodadrink vodka straightkick lowpunch highfloss floss floss
find a job you don’t hate
to deter a bullysaw stickball batin halfhide in bushesflash attackmercilessly
And the haunting, terse lyric called “After Waiting for the Soldiers...