Monday, March 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: Late for Work

I am suspicious of awards books. You know what I mean: the National Poetry Series, the Agnes Starrett award, the Lamont, the Yale Younger Poets Series, etc. It's not that there aren't good books in these series. It's just that they tend to look better than they are (and I don't mean just visually, although that too).

You leaf through them at the bookstore and hit a poem that strikes you as interesting. Unique. Evocative. So you buy the book and take it home only to discover either that you read the one good poem in the bunch or it is all surface: the poems are all interesting/unique/evocative in the same, formulaic way. Again, I don't want to paint all award winners with the same brush, but as a consumer I have been burnt enough times to be wary.

So when I came across David Tucker's Late for Work at the Concord Bookshop (one of the nicest independent bookstores in the country, by the way), I was intrigued but not necessarily optimistic. The working poet. Poems about working life. I could see the hook and had serious doubts. But it looked interesting enough to overcome my reservations from its being a Bread Loaf/Bakeless Prize winner and picked it up.

And I am glad I did. Tucker is a working poet. Not because he writes self-referential poems about holding down a job (although he does that too), but because his poems are the product of a poet working at his craft just as he works at his primary occupation. The jacket tells us Tucker is a journalist. And plenty of the poems refer to this profession. But the work in Late for Work is the backdrop, the milieu of the poems, not the subject.

Tucker is not a great poet -- you can't expect the revelatory experiences of reading Whitman or Berryman or Neruda. These are not poems using language in a new way or extraordinary visions of the inner self. They are not flashy or arty poems. No, Tucker is a not great but he is definitely a good, steady poet and his poems reflect language used well to examine a life and the society it is lived in.

Which is surprisingly uncommon nowadays and what makes this book worthwhile. Here is a poet taking his time and looking closely:

Through most of January my two brothers and I
drove back and forth to the hospital where our old man was dying.
We did eight-hour shifts, just watching him go
from the final disintegrations of liver cancer, swabbing his lips,
talking into his coma, with sidelong looks at death.
--"Enough of It"

The careful articulation lets you see into the narrator's predicament, experience loss with a clarity that is not possible when the tragedy is your own. And with that clarity comes insight:

I've seen all the x-rays I ever want to see, checked all
the IV bags I ever want to check, heard enough of the morphine counter
and its little metal tongue.

And just as his poetry is slow and studied, his endings do not allow for the easy out either:

      -- and praying
and having faith that you'll get over it and move on and let go,
and the long view you take after losing one loved so much --
I've had enough of that too.

Even in his more flippant moments, Tucker poems are controlled (such as in the poem "Voice Mail", which personifies the one technology that is perhaps the most dehumanizing, beginning "this is what's-his-face's voice mail.") But where Tucker shines is where he examines the everyday, the common events we all share but must experience separately: life, death, work, etc. Poems such as "Enough of It", "The Men Decide", and "Putting Everything Off" make Late for Work a book well worth reading.

If there are flaws in Tucker's books (and one would imagine there must be in a first full-length book) I can see only two. Every once in awhile, Tucker draws out his images so carefully, so long and so far that he goes beyond poetry and stumbles into -- well -- prose. For example, this from the poem "That Day":

The mother sings some song we can't quite hear anymore
as she carries a sack of groceries on one arm
while the boy wades around her, kicking the dry leaves.

As for the second possible flaw, Tucker is a solid poet and his poems are not repetitive. But there is a certain structure that you see repeated in several of his poems. It is the slow beginning, the steady deepening of the images, followed by a turning as the poem progresses, finished off with a final twist in the last two lines. This is not a pattern unique to Tucker. Many poets do it. It comes from a desire for closure, a clean finish. The danger is that you fall for an easy out, a neat but artificial closing image. I recognize it because I recognize it from my own work and the work of others. It is a familiar trap.

Tucker doesn't fall for the easy or the quick close, the surprise ending. But he does favor that final poetic image and uses them frequently. He may want to consider occasionally letting the poem come to a halt, without that closing final exclamation, and let the poem rely on its own merits. A little ambiguity never did any harm.

But this is just nitpicking, quibbling over details. Late for Work is a surprising book because it isn't surprising. Its just good strong poetry in the American vernacular.

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