Home » criticism, Poetry

Two From No Tell Books

Never Cry Woof

Shafer Hall
No Tell Books, 2007

The Attention Lesson

P.F. Potvin
No Tell Books, 2006

The stoned vaqueros listlessly gracing the cover of Shafer Hall’s first full-length collection of poems, Never Cry Woof from No Tell Books, have adopted exactly the right attitude for a recitation of the poetry within. They look ready to dole out fireside lyricism, and we expect a healthy dose of ruminations about life on the trail. In this case the trail ranges from West Texas to Brooklyn, and our expectations are not disappointed.

One of two approaches Hall takes towards his subjects is to transform the ordinary into the superbly extravagant. Through his lens we don’t just see a woman pottering around in a kitchen, we ask ourselves “What roiling ritual is this?/What does this dance mean?” In “Coney, Winter,” celebrating an off-season trip to Coney Island, he hits this solitary note particularly hard and to great effect:

Off the train
And down the ramp
We are the third
And fourth men
On the moon

If Hall likes to elevate the ordinary, in other poems he does the opposite, presenting a deadpan acceptance of the totally weird. In these poems he is quietly introspective, but the calm of his introspection is almost entirely overshadowed by the details of the offbeat and rough world he depicts. In “Brooklyn Aubade” we are gently reminded that at breakfast “egg creams and jellybeans are sustenance too.” His treatment of the typically sad cliché of the couple heard arguing through thin apartment walls is not just easygoing acceptance, but absolute ownership – it is an unassumingly natural feature of his world. From “Some Commotion Out My Door at Night:”

I spent the remainder of the evening
handicapping the marriage of the couple next door

and the next morning
placed a long-term, sure-fire, big-money bet
with the sucker who lives downstairs.

Shafer Hall’s poems are immediately accessible and often very short, forcefully hitting a single note. His real talent, though, shines through in his longer poems which mix together a variety of ideas and poetic techniques that often appear singly in his shorter works. The power of Hall’s poems in this collection vary in nearly direct proportion to their length. His one and two stanza poems are generally quirky one-offs that can occasionally dazzle – “Coney, Winter” being the strongest example – but more often leave the reader without enough meat to chew on. Here, for example, is “When Black Eyes Go Red” in its entirety:

The truth is, they
were yelling to keep
their lungs warm.

I will take up smoking
only for the winter.

Starting with the universe of possibilities offered by a blank page, Hall does not sufficiently narrow down those possibilities here to show us what he has in mind for this poem. In sharp contrast, his four and five stanza poems are outstandingly rich and can make the shorter ones pale in comparison. For example, easily the most polished and complex poem in the collection is “Conspiratory Poem Addressing All Imaginable Possibilities.” Here we are treated to more than just a fleeting glimpse of the world through Hall’s eyes. This is a fully-developed, multi-faceted poem presenting a complex introspection on sex. Moving through phases, it starts with wide observations that become increasingly personal, eventually hinting at an acceptance that is paradoxically both free-spirited and begrudging.

Ah, a little paranoia is a comfortable thing;
a lot of that sex is only what people do with their pets,
and on the return of steady breath sensuality is no longer
a bad witch in a pleather-sticky dress.

So I walked freely around with the slanted clouds
floating uptown; my lightning unzipped,
but on my way to meet you I realized that there was fog
all over my notion, so I perspired
into Daybreak: Northern Hemis-Fire.

Also outstanding examples of Hall’s depth are a pair of particularly strong poems towards the end of the first section. These two poems put Hall’s calm acceptance of life’s weirdness to the test via a head-on confrontation with death. “And Then The Whole Place Got Light” is an introspection on the death of an unknown person, and the creeping, clockwork effect of its absorption by the public consciousness. The next poem, “Near Magical Skills,” is also about death but far more personal. Here Hall knows the deceased intimately, is present at the viewing of the body, and obviously moved by what he sees:

Laying like a house
on the table, dead
as a pile of rocks
as he always
thought he should be,
nearly magical,
smiling,
me crying

he filled his suit
like a fucking man.

In terms of language use, Hall pays a substantial amount of attention to his poems’ aural qualities. His poems demand to be read aloud, and several poems stand out as textbook examples of traditional techniques. “Frances’s Fine Lines,” for example, shows off some marvelous alliteration:

This form
now failed
to function,

founded
in profound beauty
if not
forged in Detroit

“Frances’s Fine Lines” is not as self-referentially absorbed with its poetics as some of the other sound-oriented poems. “Sibilants” and “Terror.” are both delightful recipes for how to read themselves – “Now pronounce the commas/As, you, try, to, get, away.” – but their focus is also limited in scope to doing only that. It would be a treat to see the same level of aural craftsmanship we find in these poems combined with the emotional poignancy of the deeply moving reflection on aging found in “Nautical Selection.”

In addition to Shafer Hall’s poems, Never Cry Woof also showcases the illustrations of Amanda Burnham. Burnham’s list of artistic influences is clearly topped by Hunter S. Thompson’s longtime collaborator Ralph Steadman. Her work is dizzyingly imaginative and she has an exceptional eye for gritty details. Like Steadman, she uses outlandish perspectives and ingenious compositions to produce monstrous, can’t-look-away dreamscapes.

In this collection Burnham riffs directly off of Hall’s poems, and there is an undeniably strong kinship between their aesthetics. But in illustrating specific poems there is a natural inclination to overlook broad-stroke aesthetic kinship and focus on how well each illustration captures the mood of its specific poem. In this narrow sense there is some discord. Whereas the poems are mostly introspective with a veneer of the preposterous, the illustrations are much more animated, are primarily preposterous, and only rarely capture the contemplative angle. It remains to be seen if Burnham and Hall form a Steadman and Thompson inseparability. It would be hard to imagine Hall’s poems being better illustrated by anyone else, but there is also a sufficient independence to just as easily predict this will be a one-time collaboration.

The strength of Never Cry Woof is in Shafer Hall’s artful language and the two sides of his insight, showing us how to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and how to not get thrown out of our saddles when hit by the truly bizarre. His alternately excitable and restrained energy make Never Cry Woof a fine companion for the trailside campfire.

PF Potvin’s The Attention Lesson is also a first full-length book of poems from No Tell Books. Whereas Shafer Hall’s work mulls life over while pausing on the trail, Potvin’s work was written while riding. Drawing on his time traveling and teaching in South America, and full of archetypal childhood memories, Potvin’s The Attention Lesson is an easily accessible collection of nostalgic, narrative poems.

Although the childhood memories evoked in The Attention Lesson have an idealized quality, they don’t necessarily represent cheery ideals. They generally recall weighty, character-building experiences, such as a young boy’s moral wrestling with his first deer hunt, or, in “Carrying the Kid,” the euthanizing of the family dog by a young girl. In both of those cases there is an poignancy of detail in Potvin’s diction which helps avert the threat of clichéd sentimentality. From “Carrying the Kid:”

Dad and I were chopping wood by the road
when a pickup shot by. In the tall weeds under
the mailbox, Billy the Kid began his chase with a
bumperlunge. I had seen it countless times, having
grown up thirteen years buddied with the Kid.
But this time he got too close. As the truck dusted away,
the Kid jerked red in a pooling ooze.

Even in the minority of poems when Potvin wanders into more nebulous abstractions, his images remain consistently haunting. In “Hunger Where You Can’t See” we are offered an odd glimpse into how being a school teacher can inspire getting out of bed in the morning:

I staggered naked from the bed, eyes
still tight, and threw them a few clockradio scraps.
It only played songs in static code, so waking up to
their medieval was magic, like finding a crack in
your thigh where only the mirror can see the tiny
lions inside and prowling.

Potvin often writes about South America where he has traveled extensively, and whenever his poems allow the reader to share his experiences, this is a major boon for the reader. In “Rhythm of the Bridge” he describes a legless beggar passed by on a daily basis:

When the winter rains came, the
culvert beneath the bridge would swell, tickle the
railing spokes, then gush between, flooding the
bridge and surrounding roads. Buses and hustlers
with umbrellas jumped puddles until the water
halted all traffic. But the man stayed put, madly
tambourining.

Occasionally Potvin’s poems delve into South American politics, his treatment of which has the unfortunate effect of alienating the average reader from the poems’ emotional thrust. It is clear that the experiences were extremely moving, but these kinds of rarified encounters are intrinsically difficult to share, and especially so through Potvin’s blunt style. There are two poems, “Chilean Unmarked” and “He Who Cannot Jump,” which appear to be second-hand accounts of political rallies. Each poem is both communicative and emotional, but they still leave the reader with a very strong feeling that there is far more going on in them for the author. A description of people trying to keep warm from “He Who Cannot Jump:”

We lay frigid in lumps like burlap
sacks of bread, wasted and waiting for a change to
rain. Then someone started another chant. It was
a hunger spell that made all of us cry, “El que no
salta es Pinochet.” So we jumped, my child. We
jumped and jumped and jumped. We jumped for
your lives.

A number of Potvin’s poems are overtly written from a female perspective which raises a question. Since this collection is in no way a unified work, to what extent should the reader interpret a female narrator in the absence of an explicit indication from the author? There is a tendency to allow the decision to write with a female voice in some poems to influence the reading of neighboring poems. In some cases this leads to more interesting interpretations. In the opening poem, “A Celebration Storm” about a young boy’s first deer hunt, the boy’s late-night pathos over the killing is witnessed by the narrator, his sibling. The sex of the sibling is not mentioned, but if the sibling were a sister the dynamics of the witnessing would be significantly altered. From a brother there is the potential for jealousy over the successful hunt or embarrassment at the brother’s crying. Those specific sentiments would be less apparent if the sibling were a sister, which is to me is a personally more satisfying reading, but one I wouldn’t have considered without the proximity of the other poems.

There are 46 poems in The Attention Lesson, none longer than a page, and for a book this short there is an odd emphasis on sections, of which there are 10. In keeping with the book’s title, the sections are named after parts of a textbook and/or lesson plan, such as “Warm Up Exercises,” “Case Studies,” and “Extra Credit.” The common threads that justify the ordering are similarities in the poem’s level of abstractness and also the settings. But with so many sections for the total number of poems, all these divisions make the book seem unnecessarily anemic. The choice of a large structure invites a longer manuscript.

Potvin’s poems are generally written in whole sentences. He does not often rely on traditional poetic techniques, rather he employs two seemingly homebrewed techniques (apologies to James Joyce) for manipulating his tempo. The first is to conjoin two words, such as “elephantmasked,” “shookstill,” and “downswooping,” and the second is to eliminate the second word in a word pair when the omitted word is obvious. Supplying the missing words in brackets you get “sneak [attack],” “merrygo [round]” and “pave[ment]”. The conjunction of words serves to quicken the pace of reading while the omission of words creates a mental stumble that retards it. Both moves come across as playful and off hand, which is refreshing given the weightiness of his political and character-building content.

This is a fine debut for PF Potvin. He has a depth of experience possessed by few and a clear eye towards exactly what he wants to express from it. Considering his willingness to tackle heavy themes, it is easy to expect a longer and more ambitious work from him in the future.

____
Jeffrey Eaton is a fundraiser for Lighthouse International and an amateur photographer. Two of his photographs are featured in the April and November issues of Open Letters.