Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Gulls Hold Up the Sky by J. Patrick Lewis

Today, a long-overdue review of one of the poetry collections I've read and loved this year: Gulls Hold Up the Sky: Poems: 1983-2010 by J. Patrick Lewis (whom I will now refer to as Pat, since I know and love the guy and am telling you that straight out so that you can go ahead and impute all the bias you want to me, if you'd like. Hey - I never claimed to be fair or balanced.)

Many of you who are familiar with the world of children's literature are familiar with Pat's poetry collections, picture books, and easy readers for children, and most of you who are familiar with Pat's name are aware that he is the current Children's Poet Laureate in the United States - a well-deserved position, for a man who once described himself as "the village idiot for poetry". But Pat has also written poems for adults, some of which are "adult poems", even, for years, and early this year, a hardcover collection of those poems became available from Laughing Fire Press.

The collection is organized into six sections, each somewhat thematically organized and ranging from autobiographical poems to thoughts about poetry, philosophy, Russia (where Pat lived for a time with his family) and history. There's free verse and form poetry, light verse and heavier, and it's a well-crafted, thoughtful, and intelligent collection - just what you'd expect from Pat Lewis, if you've ever met him or read much of his work.

As a fellow laborer in the poetic fields, I admire Pat's range, his willingness to experiment, and the way he refuses to allow himself to be placed in any particular box. In fact, I interviewed him once for the Winter Blog Blast Tour and he had this to say:

. . . it is no criticism of him to say that you can tell a Seuss poem coming from a mile away. That distinctive voice is always there. But I don’t want to find my own voice. No subject on earth or apart from it is immune from poetry. I am trying to write in a hundred voices and as many forms on as many subjects, to write across the curriculum, about everything under heaven. The poem is always more important than the poet. Poets biodegrade; poems, if they have any merit, stand a middling chance of living on for a little while. My advice is to stretch your mind’s muscles. I set for myself the hard, well-nigh impossible task of writing great poetry every day. Do I succeed? No, but so what? Otherwise, why bother to write?
Pat has several "collected" poems that I admire - "Poets Lariat", "Mini Book Reviews", "Irony", "Quatrains on Love, Sex and Marriage", "Quatrains on Poetics", and "Quatrains on the Writing Life". Here's one of the quatrains from that last-mentioned poem, "Quatrains on the Writing Life", this one with the subtitle "The Difference":

The Difference
from "Quatrains on the Writing Life"
by J. Patrick Lewis

Academic exegeses
Labor over which is which.
Simple. Verse is quick and easy.
Poetry's a bitch.
Those of us that write it nod and say "ain't that the truth?", although we all know that verse is no walk in the park either.

The Acknowledgments in the back of the book are further evidence of how wide-flung Pat's writing (and interests) are. He's had poems published in such academic venues as The Gettysburg Review, in journals including Rattle and American Literary Review, and in places such as Eratosphere, Light Quarterly, and Diner.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems, a poem written as if it were a Dashiel Hammett detective novel, maybe . . .

The Death of Poetry
by J. Patrick Lewis

It was still dark. There were no witnesses,
no leads.

Poetry had been jogging before daybreak
in Central Park, bothering no one. And now
she lay there bleeding verbs and rapture.

A passing editor tried to erase the crime scene.
Unnoticed, a General Lassitude leaned into
the yellow tape, gloating.

Bereft of metaphor, the trees dropped leaflets
in protest.

A detective cliché read Poetry's ID bracelet-
an apartment in Chelsea, phone number,
next of kin. She lived with a sister named Desire.

He got the answering machine:
If I cannot stop for D-[garbled].
He'll kindly stop for me.
Dash it all. Leave a couplet.


The cliché shook his head. Mr. D., whoever
he was, would not be vigorously pursued
much less apprehended

Because the death of Poetry was nothing
more than a misdemeanor.
Clever, witty, intelligent, wry, with an underlying steel edge - poetry at its finest, and just what you'd expect from Pat Lewis. I can't recommend the collection highly enough, really - and hey: Christmas and Chanukah are coming sooner than you think . . .


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