When reading a poet completely unknown to me, I always try to avoid getting too much information about him/her beforehand. This is not always easy to do, given the prevalence of publishers’ advance notices, press releases, ‘puffs’ and ‘prelims’. So when an opportunity presents itself to read an author whose work one has never encountered before, it is an opportunity to be grasped as a way of getting straight into the heart of his mystery, unfettered by other peoples’ opinions.

When I enquired in Powell’s bookshop in Chicago about contemporary poets from that city writing at the moment, the helpful shop assistant picked out a few books, among which was Stuart Dybek’s ‘Streets in Their Own Ink’, a collection of 35 poems, published in 2004 in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My copy was a hardback edition, thereby allowing me to remove the informative dust-jacket, with its bios, critical comments and endorsements prior to making Stuart’s acquaintance. This option is one of the advantages of a hard-back edition, thereby allowing one to read the book without being encumbered by hyperbolic statements (” … only once in a generation do we find a writer who … etc., etc.”).

So it was I set off into Stuart’s book, powered by the full sails of my ignorance, with only the title to hint that it was to be a poetic overview of the poet’s city, and a quotation from Apollinaire. This nod to that most idiosyncratic of poets, whom we lost so tragically and at such an early age, was also a hint of things poignant (and surreal?) to come and was for me a good omen because he is one of my old-time favorites. So it is that, even without blurbs and bios, it is hard to escape being ‘pre-dispositioned’, but at least these prelims are chosen by the poet himself are therefore an integral part of the work itself.

The first poem usually (though not always) sets a tone for a collection and offers a hint of things to come. ‘Windy City’ is such a hint. As a poem of place it unfurls itself in cascades of comparisons, which ripple down through the poem to end with an image that reflects its flowing structure:

I remember closing my eyes as I stepped

Into a swirl of scuttling leaves.

‘Scuttling leaves’ is something of a cliché’ but its position here at the end of the poem gives it new life (and is it one of a poet’s functions to rescue words and phrases and recuperate them?). This is a poem of startlingly original comparisons (‘at night, wind rippled saxophones/that hung like wind chimes/in pawnshop windows’) and a poem well-suited to begin the collection, providing a vivid glimpse of the Chicago known intimately to him. Its fast pace is emblematic of the Chicago I glimpsed during my short stay: a city confident of itself and busy without ever being too preoccupied to stand and chat.

Many poems I find particularly appealing because of the way in which they reach down into my own childhood memories, such as ‘Bath’, which is so evocative of my own childhood and the women who cared for me:

She mops a washcloth down his spine and scrubs

until his bones glow with the inner light of porcelain …

This remembering of childhood events similar to my own and the religious backdrop to many of the poems is deeply affecting to me. ‘Benediction’ I find particularly appealing, with its epiphany-like moment:

For me, the complexity of a grasshopper


from the Congo behind a billboard

was irrefutable proof

of God and his baffling order.

The more tangible experience of everyday life ‘as it is lived’ is evident in poems like ‘Election Day’ with its hints of irregular voting practices (a phenomenon not unknown in my own country):

… wind

muscled the shadows as if the dead

were lurking—lost souls, spirits wandering

like drunks wondering where they’d parked

their cars, ghosts—most of them still voting …

The last poem in this first of three sections, ‘Angelus’, shifts the focus to a higher spiritual level and prepares the reader for the rather mystic tone of section II, which offers a glimpse behind (or beyond) the outlines of the city. The first poem, ‘Sirens’, is preoccupied by what the surface sights and sounds might suggest of another reality somehow running along under the material world, a reality glimpsed sometimes in those dreams during which one awakes suddenly, feeling that surfaces were stripped away and a truer true account of one’s was life laid bare, though in a format hard to decipher:

As dreamers know, it’s possible

to rush in silence toward disaster

the way one rushes toward desire.

In general, the poems in this section have a more spatial structure. There are less of the left-justified and blocky certainties of section I and more of that suggestiveness that couplets and triplets and blank spaces can bring to a piece. ‘Sleeper’, for example, glides down the page, slowly releasing the suggestion that a lot is happening when, seemingly, very little is (‘A sleeper/purifies a room…’) and ‘Seven Sentences’ has an enigmatic feel of ancient maxims being handed down:

It will take more than a new day to erase tonight’s moon.

In ‘Three Nocturnes’ we return to the region of dreams and their revelations (‘…  loneliness/seems just another/way of loving/only yourself.’)

As I mentioned above, those aspects of a poet’s life which are closely aligned with one’s own are bound to draw a reader closer to a writer and the resulting empathy is bound to contribute to the reasons why a reader ‘likes’ a particular poet more than others. In this section (II) it is Dybeck’s and my own shared experience of a religious upbringing which is aligned. There is too the feeling that this religious faith has never quite left him, no more than it has left me, despite my many rebellions. The way a person is taught to see the world in the formative years stays as the basis of one’s world-view, no matter how many times it seems one has left it behind. I am surprised (and pleased) at the astonishingly naive (and somewhat ‘unfashionable’) reference to the Creator in poems like ‘Benediction’. But then, I have always thought that naiveté (and ‘unfashionabless’!) is one of a poet’s strengths, probably because I am that way myself,

Section III includes some longer poems and therefore gives a wider reading of the concerns broached earlier. The gritty realism of the earlier poems (e.g., ‘Ginny’s Basement’) seems to have blended with the spiritual dimensions of the middle section which is mainly concerned with memory and the trick it can play. The imagery moves more definitely towards the surreal and brings back to mind the quotation from Apollinaire given in the opening of the book.

(Who are the great forgetters

Who will know just how to make us forget such and such a part of the world

Where is Christopher Columbus to whom we owed the forgetting of a continent)

‘Vespers’ is a series of poems, commencing with a short piece in which ‘… an altar boy kneels ringing a bell / at the shoreline of an undertow…’. I have to think a little about the ‘undertow’ bit, but the image of the altar boy sends me back immediately to St James’s Church in Dublin in the 1950s where I shivered through many an early Mass on many a cold morning. This combination of the strikingly clear and evocative alongside the more unexpected images continues through this section, which presents another look, from another angle, at his city and its sometimes eccentric inhabitants:

Beneath a daylight moon, the bag lady

kids called the Hag

foraged doubled beneath the hump

she lugged everywhere.

Other pieces catch the reader’s attention. In a poem beginning ‘What was the record wingspan for a crucified Christ?’, an arresting line in itself, the poet ends with a somewhat surreal memory:

Once, when I thought I was in Love,

I was sure I recognized the imprint of her lips

on the wounds of his feet.

The poem that follows the ‘Vespers’ series stand alone. ‘Revelation’ and also is concerned with memory and the way memory works. Or rather … just suppose it didn’t work?

Suppose the past could not be recalled

any more than we can foretell the future

the future…

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking poem which, in my view, would work even better if the last stanza were omitted.

‘Anti-Memoir’, the series of poems that concludes the book, takes up where ‘Revelation’ left off and continues with a close examination of the workings of memory, visiting various streets of the city, some ‘… whose name and numbers / have been erased, although at dusk / smoke from its chimneys still hovers / as filmy as black lingerie’ and other streets ‘without trees, without seasons’. These are ethereal and surreal landscapes where ‘grated pawnshops appear / to jail all the lovely instruments / condemned to exile by electric guitars’ – this last image a neat reference back to the opening poem of the collection ‘Windy City’ where

At night, wind rippled saxophone

that hung like wind chimes.

in pawnshop windows …

There is a poem too that echoes the title of the book (‘This is a street whose tentacles / ravel about you, drawing you in, / la calle en su tinta, / a street stewed in its own ink). But, ethereal or surreal, these are the poet’s familiar places where

Alone, along a street that’s suddenly

like any other, you’re blessed

simply to continue

another night’s walk home.

This is an accomplished collection, carefully presented. Sometimes perhaps alliteration is employed too much (‘… the complexity of a grasshopper catapulting from the Congo…’) and sometimes too many images employed too close together can result in a loss of vividness overall (‘The walls are a journal kept by crowds / passing into a phantasmagoric mural, / graphite coats and tablets of tenements / with the scorched patina of angels…’). However, these are minor quibbles. This is a poetry that appeals to me, with its weighed words (the word ‘Nacre’, for instance, in ‘Sleepers’. I had to look it before I could appreciate how apt a word it is for the work it has to do) and its weighed lines. There is no flab here. In my view, less is always more, and this is one of the reasons I have always found poets like Whitman tedious.

Deceptive effortlessness is also a hallmark of good writing and the more especially, perhaps, of good poetry. To disguise the midnight oil and elbow grease, to have the graceful line be just that and unremarkable until the reader pauses for a closer look and is astonished at the ligaments and tensed tendon imperceptible beneath – this is the real business.

As regards the dust-jacket and the endorsements I eschewed in the name of direct access, it is no surprise to find now that a Sandra M. Gilbert compares his work to Eliot’s early poetry such as ‘Preludes’. Also no disagreement from me when a Geoffrey Wolf says the poems ‘consecrate a shadowed, alternate city of dreams and retrospection’ (but why ‘consecrate’?) and I agree with Lawrence Joseph that these poems are ‘ultimately poems of praise’. In the world of inflated extolling so often a feature of back-cover blurbs it is always satisfying to find, after you have read the book, that they confirm your opinions rather than contribute to them.

I realize that this review is somewhat self-defeating in the sense that, should you read it before you have read Stuart’s book you cannot follow its advice. But maybe next time you come across a complete stranger’s work you will venture into its jungles … alone?


About the author: Steve Dybeck’s books include I sailed with Magellan (FSG, 2003), The coast of Chicago (Picador, 2003), and a previous volume of poetry, Brass Knuckles. His writing has been frequently anthologized and has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Poetry, The Paris Review and Triquarterly. He has received several major awards, including a PEN/Malamud Prize and a Pushcart prize.




























Ground Forces

‘Ground Forces’ by Paul Allen, Salmon Poetry, 2007

So much good poetry to read. I have at last caught up with Paul Allen’s collection ‘Ground Forces’ some eight years after it was published by Salmon Poetry in 2007, and this despite having lodged it on my shelves some time ago. In a book filled with good material it’s hard to separate the sheep from the sheep. The title poem ‘Ground Forces’ signals many of the book’s concerns, especially the idea that despite the daily defeats that life deals us, we just have to get on with things. There are no exceptions:

“…the last shall be first and the first shall be last—but


A recurring feature of Allen’s style is his wry humour. For instance, most of us will be acquainted with the bible story of how Jesus dealt with the evil spirits by casting them into a herd of pigs and then sending the herd headlong over a cliff, but have we ever considered the subsequent plight of the herdsmen and how they tried to explain things to their wives when they got home?—

“A god came along today and threw our herd

into the sea. We may have to tighten our belts.”

There’s no way around it. Like Auden’s Unknown Citizen’, one must become resigned to what can’t be changed:

“When there was peace, he was for peace.

When there was war, he went.”

There is an accessible, colloquial style about poems like ‘Mifford’s Work’ which is reminiscent of the strongly narrative, down-to-earth approach of Robert Frost’s ‘Out, out’. Like Frost’s, many of Allen’s poems are about actual people and ‘real events’.  Mifford is an undertaker, whose young assistant is somewhat scornful of his employer’s rather disreputable past (Mifford is an alcoholic and has had six wives). He advises his young assistant:

“ ‘ … I guess you stay married to one too long,

you get attached. That’s a little piece of advice

you can keep.’ ”

To which his assistant’s (unspoken) response is:

“As if I would keep the advice

of a man who couldn’t stay married,

cheated on his wife, drank himself

through four states and a dozen starts…”

And yet, the youngster has a grudging admiration as he watches how the undertaker goes to work on a victim of violence, using a lifetime of expertise to blend together fake with real flesh. The image employed to convey this admiration is startling:

“… right in front of my face

they become the gentlest hands I’ve ever seen

on a man: The hands of a bricklayer, say, changing

the sheets for his brother who is dying of AIDS …”

The poem that follows, ‘The Overwhelmed Samaritan’ opts for what I take to be the ‘prose-poem’ format and because of my own rather conventional style of writing poetry (i.e., strictly linear and metered), I always find it difficult to respond to this form. I am aware it has a long history (Baudelair, Whitman, Ginsberg & etc.) and yet every time I come across it I have to remind myself of its parameters. One definition tells me it is “a brief composition printed as prose but containing the elements of poetry: carefully designed rhythms, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, figures of speech and recurrent images” (1). Another has it that: “Though the name may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry… While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme.’ (2).

Fine. However, I find that ‘prose-poems’ sit a good deal nearer to prose

Paul Allen
Paul Allen

than to poetry. As always, it’s all about how well the potential of the language is realized. In many prose-poems that I find the poetic quality (or as it used to be described, that quality of ‘heightened language’) is often lacking. The jugular reach, which is so much a part of poetry’s strength, is often muted or missing entirely. This is not to say that the complete list of rhyme, metre, stanza and all the other poet’s sleights of pen are absolutely essential to the making of a good poem. It is the combination of some or all of them which does the trick of raising the language above the ordinary. However, when I come across ‘prose-poems’ I am often unsure as to whether I am reading good prose or broken-up poetry, especially when one considers that good prose can also rise ‘above the ordinary’. Think of Charles Dickens’ description of the storm at Great Yarmouth in David Copperfield.

In short, I am often unsure as to what I am dealing with when I come across prose-poems. For instance, I am indebted to one reviewer, Newton Smith (3) for designating two pieces in this book as prose-poems. Would I have recognized them as such without this help? Maybe. But that might be because I see that their lines reach the right-hand margin and that there is no discernible ‘poetic structure’ such as stanza’ or rhyme. In other words I’m looking for what is not there.

As to the poems /prose-poems themselves (as designated), the first line of ‘The Overwhelmed Samaritan’

“Not everybody is born, but everybody does die”

talks a truism, but enunciates it with that abrupt delivery of poetry which gives old phrases a new life. The five paragraphs of the piece cascade smoothly and unfold their concerns in an arresting series of images. The language is indeed heightened and the flow of the narrative very gripping. We are given a catalogue of persons in distress, their distresses becoming more and more acute as the poem races inexorably towards its despairing end:

‘They’ve been beaten badly. They are not going to make it. Pick them up. Get them some help. Pray for them, pray for them. And your mother, your children, your hairdresser, the guy who’s trying to help you adjust. On your way to the hospital, stop at city hall; the mayor you didn’t vote for is dying. While you’re at it, load up his staff. Hurry. Hurry. They’re all dying. You might not be in time…’

It is never possible to rise to every occasion, the poet is saying. The sense of being ‘overwhelmed’ is vividly conveyed, as is the desire to clear off and let things take their course, since there is not much that can be done. Beneath a patina of comic description this poem is asking serious questions about the human predicament and our powerlessness in the face other people’s suffering.  The reviewer I mentioned above (3) wrote that,  in poems like this, and other poems in the book, ‘the spiritual question … is about how to live with perpetual loss, the constant disappointments, unfulfilled ambitions, thwarted hopes, and never measuring up to expectations. The list becomes absurd’.

Similarly, in the other prose-poem ‘Silences’, which concerns Rwanda children who have suffered through war, there are lines that go beyond a mere prose factual re-telling: ‘they cannot speak or hear because of what they saw and heard’. Again, there is a compression here which lifts the language above standard prose. Is it the case that it is this type of ‘compressed’ language that turns a good prose piece into a poem? It seems to me to be as good a criterion as any other, given the absence of the usual poetic structures and devices.

These two pieces are very successful for me, whatever definition of form one uses. Everything is working, although they look and read like prose. I feel they might have been even more successful if they had been wrought under the more demanding disciplines of linear poetry. There is too much going on in too many large chunks of writing and the prose-poem format severely limits the use of the weighted word or line, while many style features (such as enjambment) are not possible. It is true that the poet here avoids much of the verbosity and lack of focus that can often be a part of the prose-poem and certainly these two poems do appeal to me because, in venturing into the prose-prose, Allen, as a good poet, cannot help leaning heavily to the ‘poetic’ side of writing. However, I cannot shake off the feeling that they might well have been even better should they have been written as either prose, OR poetry,

The middle section of the book, ‘His Longing: The Small Penis Oratorio’ was apparently issued previously as a chapbook and contains poems in which the motif of a small penis is employed to explore the idea of human inadequacy. The poems indulge in a somewhat obvious humor which, because it is obvious, does not work as well as the understated humour which runs through other of his poems. They have the feel of material which would work really well when performed live, but which do not quite lift off as page poems. This is of course a personal view and is qualified by pieces like ‘Repent’, a poignant poem about that personal history we all accumulate and the which, past a certain point in our lives, transforms into ‘baggage’, which we would dearly love to be rid of. Like the possessions that clutter up our house as we grow older, we would like to jettison at least some of this history and start furnishing anew. Your wife demands

“‘Why can’t you throw anything away? Why the Hell can’t you just get rid of stuff?’

What you do not say back, standing at the toilet, shaking your bud, is that you do not know, and oh how you wish you could.”

As I said at the start, trying to separate sheep from sheep is nonsense and so is trying to pin down a ‘best poem’ in a strong collection. However, it is an exercise that concentrates the mind (rather like Dr Johnson and hanging) and it very often comes down to something in a particular poem that ‘hits the spot’ for the reader.  And so it is with Allen’s ‘Reunion’ down the end of the book. All poems are poems of personal response, indeed all writing is (even writing perhaps in the area of mathematical aero-dynamic equations?).  Occasionally, however, one comes across a poem that speaks immediately and directly to the reader because it links to his/her own personal experience, ‘mirror poems’ if you like, because reading them is indeed like looking into a mirror of yourself and seeing yourself moving around between the lines. Sometimes these poems are in themselves are not very good and owe their impact almost wholly to the shared experience, but ‘Reunion’ is a very good poem. Not quite the best poem in the book, but it appeals to me because, here in all its pathos is that peculiar ambience which attaches to those get-togethers of former colleagues, that mix of forced camaraderie, inward melancholy and, after a few late-night drinks, maudlin nostalgia and yes, I’ve been there a few times, opting out when I realised it was bad for my mental health.

I most definitely have ridden that elevator the poet takes, midway through the poem. I have seen it fill up at each floor with my somewhat overweight companions (of yore), keeping my eye all the time on the weight restriction sign, as he does (”MAXIMUM LOAD THIS CAR: 2400 LBS”). There is of course worse to come when we at last reach the top floor bar:

“Alright everybody, here we go:

Who has the most children?

Who has changed the least?

Who remembers all the verses to our old song?”

The three shorter stanzas lay the groundwork for the final, extended one. This gift of seeing clearly past the scars and marks left by the world and its ways and plunging down into the concealed worth of the person is a frequent theme in this collection.  A reaffirmation that even ’the least of these’ has qualities worth valuing, like Mifford, who is, in Thomas Kinsella’s words, “… not young, and not renewable, but man”.

Read this collection. It could make you a better person and more understanding of the faults of others. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.


(1) Literary Terms: A Dictionary. Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, Noonday Press, a Division of Farrar, Struas and Giroux, New York, 1989.

(2) poets.org

(3) Newton Smith at ashevillepoetryreview.com

There is a type of  TV programme that shows ‘real-life’ car chases, with policemen who are absolutely determined to get their man (it’s always a man). They don’t give up, even when the quarry crashes the car,  jumps out and vaults several fences through back-yards and runs up and down narrow alleys. And all this this time he is being chased by several police officers, sometimes with dogs (you’re paying for all this as a taxpayer, so… ‘enjoy’). He is also followed from above by a night-time camera mounted on a helicopter. The camera has some kind of hi-tech night-time lens and this converts everything into a weird other-worldly scenario, in which houses, fences, roads and alleyways show up in varying blacks and greys, while our intrepid fugitive appears as a kind of vague human form in ghostly white. 

It never struck me before how much this night-time odyssey could be seen as a metaphor for Life itself.  How much the ghostly white smudge confronting various obstacles in its path could be … us, as we try to deal with our destinies. It didn’t strike, that is, until I read Niall O’Sullivan’s poem ‘The Limit’ some time ago in his collection ‘ you’re not singing anymore’. Of course I now wish I’d sat down and examined that premonition I had that there was more to this ‘real-life’ police-chase TV footage than just its ‘reality’. If I had, I might have written a poem just as good as Niall’s. But I didn’t. Damn him!

This poem appeared recently as a ‘poem of the week’ on the ‘flipped eye’ site (www.flippedeye.net), so you can read it and hear it there. By kind permission from Niall I also include it here:

The Limit

300ft above the Hanger Lane gyratory,

a police helicopter breaches the cusp of its jurisdiction

and sweeps from the sunset to the dusk

towards the crowded towers of the South Acton Estate.

The engine’s growl seeps into the bedroom

of my brother’s Acton flat,

I hate that sound, he says to me

as he changes baby Ossian.

Makes it feel like a police state.

I tell him about apolice chase show

I saw on TV, how those choppers are kitted out

with infra re heat seeking cameras

if one ever hooks onto you

the best thing to do is to keep running,

jump garden fences, kick guard dogs in the face,

ignore the shreds that rose bushes rip from your skin,

use one-way systems to your advantage

make that high-risk sprint across the motorway,

keep zig-zagging ’til that chopper runs out of fuel,

only then is it safe to hide and form your strategy.

Still, you could never escape that low hum

and the message it broadcasts into every living room,

which means nothing to baby Ossian,

four weeks on this earth and enchanted

by black paper shapes blu-tacced to the wall.

Let his happy monosyllables bless us all,

it’s still a while until he tests the vanity

of a newly minted tooth against

the rude geometry of a wooden block.

Let us keep our minds away from the sies until then.

Niall O'Sullivan

… Niall O’Sullivan, from his collection ‘you’re not singing anymore’, published by ‘flipped eye publishing’, London. Niall is the host of the weekly (Tuesdays) open mic ‘Poetry Unplugged’ at the Poetry Cafe in Betterton Street in London, which is always, ALWAYS, worth a visit.

The ‘list’ poem is not really a poem at all, just a list of things the poet finds interesting and thinks you might find ‘interesting’ too. The hope is that the combined weght (or attractiveness, or ‘zaniness’, or whatever) of the images will act in an accumulative way on the reader’s head and ‘transport’ him/her … somewhere. In many cases the overall effect is one of tediousness and, if it is along poem, one finds one’s eye beginning to race down the ‘list’ to see if there is any ‘outcome’ to all this verbal pyrotechnics. I’m not faulting a poem that goes off into a list in the workings of its

Pauline Fayne

 discourse (Ginsberg’s stuff), or one that actually ends up somewhere (‘God’s Grandeur’ by Hopkins). It’s ones like Thomas Hood’s ‘November’ that I have in mind, although it IS mercifully short. A poet friend, Pauline Fayne, published something recently which sums of my views much better than I could sum them up myself:


For toothache, swollen knees

and writer’s block —


For food cravings, fantasists

and unrepentant bigots–

nettle soup.

For hot flushes, apathy

and adolescent mood swings–

cold showers.

For posers, bullies

and apprentice saints–

all of the above.

For uninspired poets–

list poems.

Pauline Fayne, by kind permission

(This poem was voted ‘Poem of the Year 2009’ in Michael Flanagan’s long-running ‘Riposte’ poetry broadsheet)