All That’s Left
(City Lights Foundation, 2008)
Left is the right word for Jack Hirschman, San Francisco’s current poet laureate. This veteran politico is a communist, beat, “streetheart” wordsmith. Lady Liberty by his side, he lifts the torch with passion and takes no prisoners in the righteous fight. With a trenchant one-two punch of observation and invention, Hirschman’s a champ.
The collection opens with an autobiographical address Hirschman delivered at his inaugural ceremony. Three overarching themes emerge: friends and sweethearts; economic injustice; and a revolutionary worldview (he has translated in some half-dozen languages).
Most poems are pinned instantly by the titles. “Café Trieste,” “Paul Robeson” “The War Drugs On,” “Virginia Tech.” Predictably, there’s the de rigueur “Mumia.”
“Venezia” is a signal love song to the fabled city of “walking water.” “I’ve come to you// … and lain down/ in your black body…” “The House of the Setting Sun” is a gut wail of human sorrow and outrage. “I put my mouth to your misery, New Orleans.”
“This House of Hunger” is dedicated to “all the American kids who go to sleep each night without supper.” Hirschman’s dead-on vernacular personalizes the fury. In slender quatrains, the poet slam-dunks “Fat Exxon and Bechtel.” Their “pretty profits” pale “before King Death.”
Then, in poetic munificence, he conjures a spell to dispel the “greedy spirits” and fill “the little bellies.” These poems are food.
(Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
By holding words to the light, Emily Warn interprets their shadows. Specifically, by writing about each of the twenty-four letters in the Torah, Warn creates Zen koan-like meditations. First we explore Aleph, then Beit (alphabet), and so on. Drawing on ancient rabbinical writings called Midrashim, the author offers a personal interpretation of the Torah while claiming poetic license.
The artist Dennis Evans created handsome visual symbols for the names of the letters, adding further cryptic significance. The mysteries of the shapes and numbers embedded in the letters are used as guides. Spiritual sources are quoted and have the effect of sturdy bookends around sacred tomes.
Warn is of this world, though her jump-off goes back to the divine beginning of the written word. In “Elijah’s Babble” the protagonist declares: “I’m proof that words travel to jazz’s galaxy. // Not any words, words that labor without speech.” Here Warn telescopes her aim into a profound conceit. Her subject leads us to a place where he “could hear what is not… the sound of God almost breathing.”
In “The Soul Repair Kit” the poet reveals one of her tricks in concertina-tinkling couplets. “You sharpen the stylus and wait…. // The river floods you with names… until you are ignorant as grass, as nameless….”
These works are poured from the “invisible forge” of eternity.
One of a Kind
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008)
An underground treasure, you dig—Jack Micheline. An anti-academic, freewheeling hipster, he never made the big time, but he is big in the hearts of true believers. Jack Kerouac wrote an introduction for his first book, which was reviewed in Esquire by Dorothy Parker.
I met Micheline at Tompkins Square towards the end of his run. A soulful, scrawling scribe with an angelic smile ravaged by time, he still had magnetic charm and energy to burn. Resigned to his vagabond persona, he followed his ragged muse past flophouse blues to the exalted Canon!
“I am a Prince” he declared, and it’s true. Along with Harold Norse, Philip Lamantia, and Bob Kaufman, Micheline was a jewel in North Beach. He projected a fierce, outlaw independence. His trappings included racing stubs, suitcases, and eviction notices. He counted as friends Franz Kline, Charles Mingus, Charles Bukowski, and Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo here in New York where Micheline was born.
It’s been said that poetry portrays the human against the mountain; Micheline ensures you never forget that elemental struggle. Grounded in his ramblin’ lifestyle, he pelts us with gritty details: “Lost my keys.” Rummies, schemers, hustlers, and cons are sketched with percussive persistence.
In an avowal that sums up Micheline’s beatific, baseline vision, “only the desperate knock.” “Ask… that one eyed coronet player… his right eye doing a solo forever.”