Dog on a Chain Press does it again with their highly regarded Lantern Lit Series. Volume 3 consists of three poetry chapbooks contained in one book by authors William Graham, Mat Gould, and Alan Catlin. Each has a distinct style and voice in their work, yet connect with themes of history, death and personal philosophy. The collection encompasses masculinity throughout; however, a far deeper connection rooted in a place as ancient as the wind—the mountains, the land, the voices that speak to the soul—is profoundly more prevalent within the first two chaps, then ending in a bit lighter note in the final with poems that rework history and art set in the familiarity of bars and booze.
William Graham’s Renegade Ballads is a mix of thoughts on how to live, not to just get by, but to “swing furiously.” Conflict brims between what the poet dreams and the realities of the world, yet, Graham is intent on pushing the reader into a new consciousness. These poems urge ego to move toward freedom from being its own worst enemy by judging yourself and others.
“Sometimes you are your own cruel captor,
be a gracious jailer and let yourself come
and go freely.”
Graham quickly moves into coping with remembrance where some of his more intimate lines resonate as in “Keep It,”
“I would leave my home and drive,
on days when stirring from desperate sleep
was a drawn out chore…
… I would reach my thieving hands out from the window
plundering all that I could for myself
every fist full packed tightly into my pocket
firmly pressed against my leg
fabric staining, as the stolen contents
slowly dissolved into my skin.”
“Ballad” is not necessarily confined to the poetic term here. Graham keeps rhyme to a bare minimum (thank god), but his work is short and pocked with great narrative. He is at his best when creating larger, complex themes out of normal, everyday moments or insignificant objects. Some poems are simple and sweet as in “…unrequited love (part 12),”
“the other night I had this dream
as silly as it sounds
we sat in the kitchen
but smiling softly.
We shared an orange
between the two of us
how sweet it was.”
others are deep and introspective as in “The means,”
“and take these stale old words,
rotting on our tongues for so long
and help find the means
to distill all
down to what they were meant to be.”
Renegade Ballads presents strong story-telling and pronounced endings. Graham’s poems are meant to be read aloud. His work stayed with me as I drove through the Appalachians right after my first read through and it was then I truly understood Graham’s connection to the land. These are poems I will visit again.
Mat Gould’s Bone Chimes Heckling the Remnants of a Dying Brigade makes me feel like hunting and living off the land. Gould’s work is dense with deep images connecting the natural world with inner spirituality as he reaches into our forgotten primitive state. The juxtaposition between the right now and the past is evident throughout this selection of poems. For example, “An Entire Subsistence,” begins with imagery of mounted animal heads—trophies.
“above the alter, the heads of the hunted
their glassed eyes holy with reflection,
horns sharpened, ready for weapon.”
But quickly turns into a lesson—a simplification in living, the necessity for survival, and the spiritual connection in the killing of animals that goes far beyond sport.
“a few adorn totem
a few hang from chest
a few held by the hand holding the ritual staff
under coyote head dress a wraith with a rattlesnakes face…
… a few made into arrow, drawn back, deep toward the shoulder,
held tight, slung shot.
more bones for prayer
more bones to accompany the chant-”
Gould’s poems place us in the here and now, yet also take us back to our primitive state, even if that wasn’t so long ago. At times I wonder if this is critique or warning. Is he looking to our future? For me the answer is in “Saviors Stew,”
“the day has been gutted
the meat has been chewed
it was gristle at best
if nothing else, a blessing
on the trail, surrendered by the blind
whom had found it first-”
Gould’s work is more abstract of the three authors and the reader will need to work for meaning at times, and some language will take you out of the poem if not up to snuff on complex vocabulary. There is some rhyming in Gould’s poems that works very well for him—which is a rare treat. Bone Chimes Heckling the Remnants of a Dying Brigade is a good study of contemporary poetry and worth the read.
Alan Catlin’s Empty Glass Epilogue is booze, bars, art, and history, although not along the same lines of history as in the first two collections. Catlin uses allusion to delve into the lives of the artists he admires or perhaps judges as he is changing, rewriting, and offering a pragmatic perspective to specific moments in history—mainly set in drinking establishments. “Oh lucky men” sets the tone and direction of this collection.
“O lucky men, all of them, poets dying before their time,
drunk and disorderly, all of them. Their words supersede them.”
There is a lovely sense of nostalgia and humor in Catlin’s work that outshines any tone of judgment. One of my favorites is “Irish Rovers” where Catlin bravely uses a string of clichés and excuses to bring his point home.
“All of them living fill in the blanks
lives, lists of if onlys like posted
legal notices in newspapers, their
lives foreclosed long before the fat
lady sang, the time clock expired,
the summons was handed over.
All of them knew every process
serving trick in the book, had even
invented a few themselves when they
were on the hook for a job and nothing
else was available…
…The stuff they wouldn’t
do, hated worse than their own lives, could
fill volumes. Buy them a shot and a beer
and they’ll be glad to recite the whole list.”
Isn’t it funny that times have not changed all that much. Every writer I know just wants to be heard. Forget about the riches and living fat on the hog. In the end it is about someone really liking what you have to say. But Catlin pokes fun at the reader who tries to live up to the romanticized idea of what a writer “is” in his poem “The White Giant’s Thigh.”
“All those words he fathomed
his own with rich recitations
in deep baritone voice,
whiskey edged and cigarette
rough, a pint a poem he never
pays for. All of the breathless
women dying to run hands
fade t-shirt that said:
“Poets Do It With Words”.”
The majority of Catlin’s poems are in a sense elliptical, channeling James Joyce, Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, Dostoyevsky, among others. He does a fine job making these poems feel more personal; however, at times the history lessons in some can be a bit long-winded. I found it refreshing that his work made me into an active reader as I sought out more information on some of the subject matter. I leave you with a bit from “dead friends, dead days, dead loves,” a piece with rich language and meaningful narrative that helps wrap-up Empty Glass Epilogues into a tight, cohesive package.
“…Not that what was said
was important, it is the process that
is important, not the actual message
and to think, you came here of
your own free will, sauntered up
to the bar, and ordered a specialty-
of-the-house, drink, and twenty years
later, here you are, wondering if there is any point in wanting to leave to even dream of ever being anywhere else.”
Lantern Lit, Volume 3 does not disappoint. It is earthy. It is introspective. It is outside of the urban center, suburbs, and cell phones taking us to places we need to go.