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Vision and Voice

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
pp. 18-19 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0082

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Howard Faerstein’s Dreaming of the Rain in Brooklyn takes its title from a line in the poem “Missionary Ridge,” which appears early in the collection: “in a roaming time” and “under a Neanderthal moon,” he had “begun dreaming of the rain in Brooklyn,” the place of his birth. Indeed, many of these poems embody some element of dream—recollection, reflection, desire, hope—though further mention of rain comes later in the book. Until then, the skies are dominated by the moon. At times, the poet is “followed by the moon,” or “sandwiched in the imaginary line between our sun / and earth,” the “moon mouthing / do not forget me.” He even “speaks” the moon in delightful improvisation in “The Sound in the Middle of ‘Moon’”:

Two o’s make the sound of taproot,
Owl’s hoot, stormtrooper’s boot,

Building an igloo out of vowels
Not for ballyhoo or boohoo or the old bugaboo
But in gratitude to the soil.

Beneath Faerstein’s moon, the earth teems with people and places, nature and wildlife, events both personal and public. There are the deaths of friends and family, the streets and shops of Brooklyn, the peaks and dips of the Berkshires, Taos, Santé Fe. There are political figures like Fidel Castro—who “reclaimed 70,000 acres from U.S. companies / half of it owned by United Fruit”—as well as horses, silkmoths, “finches fox-trotting on husk-covered snow,” birds beneath the window / and racing lizards tunneling / crevices of slate.”

This is a poetics of expanding sensibility—grounded in concrete imagery, informed by the spirit of jazz. The rhythms are often upbeat: “A beat cop waved us down but Ian floored the Chevy / & the cop commandeered a gypsy cab, / giving chase through the breathless ghetto,” followed by lyrical quietude and deep reflection:

Most of our life our eyes are shut.
Most of the time we do not speak.

One day it snows, the next
redwings gurgle first spring trill,
and the solitary sepals
and petals and stamens
dangling, burst

Dreaming of the Rain in Brooklyn is Faerstein’s first full collection of poetry and a long time coming (he’s in his sixties). The poems—some composed years, even decades ago—include a variety of styles and forms: solid five line stanzas, quatrains or tercets, open form, a prose poem. What’s remarkable is the range of subject and texture, balance of voice and vision. I was initially distracted, for example, by the seemingly arbitrary use of the ampersand and word “and”— as in, “think / how incredibly long this song…lasted/and how thrilling & just.” It then occurred to me that the word “and” carries the poet’s deeply meditative voice while the ampersand shifts the tempo and tone. This kind of syncopation—along with leaps, shifts, subtle connections, and mergers—occurs throughout.

The book is divided into three parts after a prologue that sets the themes and rhythms:

I want you to take me to heart.
I want to take you where mountain laurel blooms, monarchs gather, bats dart.
I want to take you on the B65 downtown bus, get off on Gates, turn down Fulton.

I don’t want to be taken to the cleaners.
I never want to take you for granted.
I want to take you to La Jolla tide pools.
All the places we’ve never been.
All the bad parts of town.

The first section transports us to the lifestyle and politics of the poet’s youth in the 1960s, “before the moon landing / & after the Summer of Love,” the Cold War, Kent State, and Nixon’s resignation. There are the “courtyard / crowded with Catholic girls in Easter outfits,” “Mel’s Dry Cleaners on Green Street,” and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not on 42nd.” We’re taken to “Paradise Alley,” where he “dropped off homemade meth” and netted $10 an ounce dealing hashish. Deemed “fit as a fiddle” on “Draft Induction Day,” he’s eventually granted 4F status: “I explained how I cured myself of syphilis / while living in a California commune / by cutting the tip of my penis into four symmetrical parts.”

Many of us who came of age in the 60s...

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