Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: Sky Sandwiches

John F. Buckley
Anaphora Literary Press, 2012
97 pp/48 poems

Sky Sandwiches, John F. Buckley’s first solo collection, is an uneven effort. In terms of subject matter, the poems flow well from one to the next, as Buckley groups them together--food and absent father figures at the front, cultural commentary at the back. Craft, however, overall seems to take a back seat to that source material.

Buckley is, it seems, overly fond of sound devices such as alliteration, consonance, and sibilance, as seen in these lines from “Lost Scent, Strange Mountains”: “Trip-hop mills the burrs from nerves / oversharpened by bottomless casino / coffee cups.” In fact, there were several instances during the reading of this book when I noted that meaning and visual composition suffer. Line lengths in individual poems tend to be standardized--most of the poems have medium-length lines. When I arrived at “Recipe for a Hex,” it gave me pause, because it stands out in part thanks to its stylistic departure: short, staccato lines rather than overly verbose ones. Additionally, it contains the great sounds that should be the focus--“whiskered cat skull,” “tough to find / enough stray casings,” “alien tchotchkes and / antique wooden hymnal / stands,” among others--rather than the devices aforementioned, which often feel as though they were ripped from a poetry playbook.

Unfortunately, like many poems here, “Recipe for a Hex” suffers from several weak line endings. Enjambment is not the problem; Buckley does seem to have an instinct for when not to end-stop a line. Rather, the words themselves cause trouble. Ideally, a strong word will round off a line, thereby serving two purposes: first, to give the line its proper due as a unit, and second, to pull the reader forward. This tendency of Buckley’s to ignore that is out in full force in “Iron Chef,” where the end words was, with, when, and, and it are used in some stanzas.

Another problem that comes up repeatedly is Buckley’s employment of inappropriate words or phrases, which often intrude on poems that might otherwise seem timeless. The most obvious of these are on-trend sayings that have entered our national lexicon and taken root but that are unlikely to survive. There are at least two references to McMansions (in “The Authority Figure” and “Hometown Expatriate”), a mention of Google Maps in “Exchange Rates,” and the appearance of the ever-ubiquitous Facebook in “Leaving New Eden.” While we may feel these things are here to stay, I might remind both reader and poet that MySpace was supposed to be the be-all, end-all of social networking, and then Facebook blew it out of the water. It’s only a matter of time before these three things are replaced, and then their use in these poems will make the works seem dated rather than prescient.

Likewise, Buckley’s attempts at timely social consciousness come off as disingenuous, as though the poet believes he must make some kind of commentary on the state of things. As a result, poems like “Organic Chemistry” and “Eco-Poem” suffer, their conviction stripped away by arbitrary lines such as “I bore nature no mind” and “Our appetite for oily sauces speaks louder than words,” which also contains an unfortunate cliché.

Other clichés are present. For example, “Short Stack” shortchanges Buckley’s current city of Ann Arbor by describing it in terms too often applied to that place: both hippie and hipster, and thus some kind of pseudo-grunge Mecca; having been in Ann Arbor many times and as recently as last month, I can report that while those two populations do exist, the city is more unique than Buckley allows, both culturally and academically. Meanwhile, “King of the Road” must overcome a cliché in the title, which it manages to do. In fact, that poem is an unexpected and refreshing foray into the natural world, pulling the poet’s focus away from himself and allowing his voice, as well as the reader, to take a deep, restorative breath in the second half of the book.

As it turns out, Buckley is at his best when he looks outward unselfconsciously. When he appropriates Native American culture in “Exchange Rates,” I cringe--the last thing we need as a society is another white man comparing his trials to those of displaced persons. However, “Poem for Christy’s Daughter,” about an adopted girl, partly undoes the damage caused by “Exchange Rates,” thanks largely to the fact that it reads like the most honest thing anyone has ever said. While the last two lines are tidy to the point of absurdity--“You don’t live where you came from, either, / No matter how you struggle to fit inside”--the overall effect of the piece is good.

Similarly, “Ode to Barabbas” is powerful and interesting, a poem-as-miniature-biography. The poet asks the right questions: “Just why did / they save you, Barabbas, and why did they call out your name // for release” stings, as if it is the query of someone who was passed over for salvation in favor of this strange figure. Yet the final lines indicate that the speaker is confident that he has the upper hand: “What or whom do you / wrestle, Barabbas, what or who will attend when you die?”

Buckley’s disadvantage, though, is that his speakers too often think they have the upper hand, either personally or poetically. “Island Living” showcases this well; the speaker attempts to come across as worldly and critical but instead seems pretentious, thanks to the clear hatred he has for the city in question, a hyper-manufactured place where the denizens are assumed to be oblivious to the consequences of their actions. I suspect, however, that if the speaker took the time to interview the people he derides, he would find that they are doing their best, the same as anyone else in this world.

Overall, Buckley’s work needs refinement. Arranging words in lines instead of paragraphs does not poetry make, as demonstrated by the more prose-type poems “The Authority Figure,” “Seven Courses, No Issues,” “Accounting Time,” and “Storefront Church,” as well as the fiction-esque “Documented Immigrant.” Smoothing out the roughest edges alone would serve Buckley well. Given his moments of transcendence, I believe he could be a much better poet than he is now.

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