James Hoch at the Burlington Book Festival in Vermont. We were both among the featured poets and met at the Saturday night dinner. While sitting at the bar before dinner, I heard Jim ask Major Jackson a question that began with "Did your publicist . . . ?" Forgive me for not remembering what came after publicist. Poets with Publicists? Who invented that? So I was immediately impressed, but even more so with Jim's charm and wit. Unfortunately, I did not get to hear his reading the next day as he was assigned to a different venue. I did, however, buy his new book, Miscreants. I finished reading it last night and it blew my slippers off.
As the title suggests, the collection is filled with dubious characters, tough, street-wise people. But there is also an elegance to these poems, a lovely combination of tough and tender. Laced throughout the collection are poems that allude to the paintings of Caravaggio and to several mythological characters. The result is a sense of timelessness as well as immediacy. What is happening now is what has always happened.
The poems are divided into three unidentified sections, i.e., there are no section numbers or titles. The center section is a long, multi-part poem, "Bobby Almand," about the abduction, rape, and murder of a young boy. It's a mesmerizing, disturbing poem, but oddly full of beauty. The poet finds many ways to examine his subject. And the poems show a deftness that filled me with admiration. It is as if the narrator is trying to find the right form, the right words for what he needs to say. This is a poem that needs to be read, that cannot adequately be described or summarized.
The poems that lead into and follow the center poem prepare for and echo similar themes. For me, the collection has the feel of a kaleidoscope. I'm going to include two of my favorites. First, the first poem in the collection.
Acts of Disappearance
It was a world where a moose
could pull a squirrel out of his hat,
children disappeared down holes,
and the lake outside your window
could suddenly go missing.
You sip your coffee and ponder:
abduction, subduction . . .
Freud said, when we look at the sea,
something like the sea opens in us—
which might explain Scully
drowning in himself or the night
Bobby didn't make it home, and why
I feel like a slick of mud.
Freud was talking about God,
not wax-winged punks shooting up
in a three-story walk-up, not a boy
building a fort—the hammer, the needle,
the report driven hellward.
It was a trick no one showed you—
how one could turn a lung into a lake,
a boy into air, carp on their sides,
the prevalence of sinkholes.
They keep asking for more;
the sea, of course, is not endless,
it only feels that way.
And now one from the last section.
Even the sound seems clumsy,
as if the word clogs the little space
between tongue and pallet, an accident:
shattering consonant, guttural vowel.
Looks funny, too, like a jogger with
a strange gait, or an animal that might
benefit from being run over which is
about how he feels as she turns away,
retreats to her side of the bed and he lies
there, considering the error, the name
that just stumbled out of his mouth,
dumbly as the first time he asked out
a girl with blue-spiked hair, a fragrance
of old pillows, and subsequent tongue
like an iguana. So he tries adjusting
the way he once tried puzzling together
a dish, a Japanese import from Hoboken,
shard and fingertip and Krazy Glue.
Bad idea, bad as wearing a white
pair of underwear on his head to school,
bad as taking that job as a pig inseminator.
Bad as climbing Normanwood Bridge,
bad a Scott Koch backing right off,
bad as reaching, bad as touching his shoe.
O heart, O George, O jungle. O God
fumbling for the light switch, here
is your awful toy, all sense tumbling
away from him as it does from you.
What else can he do but reach for her,
as if touch could fix a wrong, and coax her
hand and mouth back to bed, a skill,
the only one he ever had.
Jim teaches at Ramapo College, not far from where I live, so I hope that he'll soon have a reading in the area and I'll have the opportunity to hear him read.