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A Long Playing Poem
In the tradition of the Langston Hughes’ classic Montage of a Dream Deferred, Mitchell L. H. Douglas uses persona poetry to explore the personal and professional struggles of soul legend Donny Hathaway in his debut collection Cooling Board: a Long-Playing Poem. Douglas presents a narrative in two sides: side one focusing on Hathaway’s development as a young musician and subsequent rise to fame and side two bearing witness to the adversity that plagued his later years. Readers see Hathaway as true to his family and faith, and uncompromising in his quest for musical innovation. In a nod to Hathaway’s legacy as a musical trailblazer, Douglas implements a significant poetic innovation through the book’s format. By including alternate versions or “takes” of poems readers receive new information and interpretations of the poems. It can be likened to an album with previously unreleased versions of popular songs. Along the way, poems resembling liner notes and pop charts enhance the experience, reminding readers that the music is the heart of this ride. Above all, Douglas’ depiction of Hathaway reveals the human side of a man who has remained a mystery in the time since his death. Not only does the poet speak in the voices of Hathaway and his long-time collaborator Roberta Flack, the reader also hears the voices of those closest to Hathaway whom we are less familiar with: his mother, Drusella Huntley, his grandmother, Martha Crumwell—Hathaway’s earliest music teacher—and his wife, Eulaulah. With Douglas as a guide versed in the power of possessing many tongues, Cooling Board captures its reader like the best Hathaway song: passionately, honestly, and with an undeniable sense of purpose.
covet (kúh-vit)v. tr.: to desire, esp. to desire eagerly, to wish for, long for. As in to covet another’s belongings, the ghosts of households and fixtures, their voices or warnings. Ex: she coveted the fine table, the rich furnishings of her neighbor’s home. As in to covet the past, a lost year, a lost life or one not lived. Ex: turning the photograph of her parents over in her hand, she imagined their happiness and coveted what might have been. As in to eagerly wish for the health, well-being of one for whom responsibility is given, or a child. Ex: she coveted, above all, happiness for her sons. Or, to want that (i.e. person) which one may not have, desire to possess another. Ex: thou shalt not covet.
As we spiral into the twenty-first century, the foundations of Western civilization are consumed, corpse-like, by fragments, decay, wind and water. By the next century, one blue alien may stand on the shores of Earth holding a skull in the wreck we’ve made of this once beautiful planet and say, “I knew them once. A fair race, a proud race.” What energy and foul nesting instinct consumes us and causes us to ruin our own home while overpopulating it? Human passions and failures are the stuff of literature, the grist of good writing and none is more captivating than this monumental failure.
Kirkwood's slender, desolate-feeling first novel, set between the California desert and L.A., hinges on an intricate emotional triangle revolving around a teenage runaway. Alexandra, a middle-aged transvestite living a celibate life on the Salton Sea, befriends the runaway, Olivia, at the girl's desert campsite before Olivia disappears. Eleanor, an L.A. plastic surgeon and a lonely lesbian, saw Olivia once in her office and later unknowingly gives a consult to Olivia's unstable mother, Asa, who has for several years cleaned Eleanor's office at night and begins to track the surgeon's whereabouts once she discovers the doctor's connection to Olivia. Meanwhile, Alexandra, enjoying a flirtation with the surgeon that begins after a body that might be Olivia's is found, stays at Eleanor's canyon home for a month, visited occasionally by Asa, disguised as a door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman. Once Kirkwood maps out the particulars, every maneuver on the part of these characters is fraught with tension. Kirkwood's exploration of personal and spiritual metamorphosis is all the more powerful for its surprising subtleties.
A Book of Distinctions
Jack Foley’s The Dancer and the Dance: A Book of Distinctions deliberately challenges many conventional ways of thinking about poetry. Though extremely scholarly and aware of the “tradition,” Foley offers readings rooted in a consciousness which is simultaneously non academic and open to the new. “The self of this book,” he writes, “is not a unity but a multiplicity. Many people would agree with this idea of selfhood—the self as a ‘multiplicity of voices’—but clarification is still required as to how the concept of the self as multiplicity affects literary criticism, how it affects our actual reading of poems. It may be that the self we postulate as we read a poem contradicts the self we experience in the world; it is also possible that familiar poems may be experienced anew by being read in the light of multiplicity.” Foley’s explorations lead him into radically new readings of “canonic” work by poets such as Keats, Yeats and Mallarmé, into the world of opera, free jazz, New Formalism, and the writing of song lyrics, into “ethnic” literature, theater, and finally into problems of “spoken word” and “slam poetry.” Throughout, his point of view, initially controversial, becomes finally compelling. “It is possible,” he says quietly about the whole of Western culture, “that Plato was wrong, and that we must make an effort to think in a different way if we are to encounter reality at all.”