REVIEW: SODOMY is a CITY in NEW JERSEY by George Wallace

John Dorsey (Grievous Jones Press, 2009)
Sodomy is a City In New Jersey

America needs poets of witness as never before — but more than that, poets who are unafraid to remain tender to the human condition while getting their point across.

Some don’t bother at all — they’re content to rant in anger or self-righteousness. Others are able to use their wit, stoking the fire of irony and satire to win their point.

And there are those rare few who are able to strike a balance between the awfulness of the ‘big picture’ they are trying to convey, with the humanity of the small people caught in it.

Fortunately we have poets like John Dorsey among us, who demonstrates in his new collection that he is capable of doing just that.

Whether the subject is as big as death or as prosaic as a broken promise, or the common demons that haunt working class Americans, Dorsey engages his readers in a contemplation that is at once polemically urgent and genuinely human.

One can see this most clearly when he uses icons of our culture to get the job done. With a casualness that borders on the dismissively intimate, he hauls the famous in like shrimp in a shrimp net — from Elvis to Jimmy Hoffa and from Gregory Corso to Jesse James, icons great and small. Not just to populate his poems, but to help the message go down easy.

In some cases, the poems are elegiac, as in this poem YOU BROUGHT THE FIREWORKS, to Ted Berrigan:

with the boyish good looks
of a young benjamin franklin
on diet pills and pepsi cocktails
you sang until the
teeth fell out of your head
and words were the only thing left

More frequently, icons of popular culture are useful bits and pieces for Dorsey to add to his compelling patchwork poems. Bravado, he notes in a poem by that name, “is a weak word/its meaning painted on/rocks john wayne had/it i’m told that/jesus had it in/spades.”

“(I) once referred to Jimmy Hoffa/as studded bones” he writes playfully, in THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE — but the poem that ends up offering its readers a nuanced question concerning the nature of separation:

my shadow waits for your song
by the invisible rivers of empathy
parked quietly along the highway at wounded knee

When he’s not offering up icons to illustrate some salient point about life in this complicated world, celebrities frequently provide the backdrop for Dorsey’s experiences among the unknown figures who populate his world and the mortal concerns they share.

“i recently told a/friend that all kafka/ever really wanted was/a pony” he writes in IN HEAVEN EVEN DEATH SMELLS LIKE SEX.

In SKATING ON THIN ICE, he and his little brother are “small fish on/an even smaller pond/born on thin ice…and waiting for our/shot at the white trash ice capades twirling until/sundown like the spiritual children/of gordon lightfoot…”

In a sense, this kind of iconic name-dropping fuels his attempt to invest the experiences of his friends and acquaintances — the schoolhouse Beckies and shopping center Jessicas of his life — with point and purpose. Here’s his friend Mike, in THE YEAR JOE BRAINARD DIED:

i don’t remember the conversation
only that mike drove
a beat to shit
73 nova and that
he spent $60 on
egg rolls in 2 days
because he had a
crush on a girl
that worked in the
food court who would
later take out a restraining order

He wistfully recalls a friend named Harry, in THE BALLAD OF HARRY LINDH, who teaches him the meaning of “true kindness at/6:30 in the morning.”

once he showed me
a faded picture of his daughter
i didn’t have the heart
to tell him i didn’t
think she was attractive
so i just smiled
and nodded and the day
he found out she
had cancer 2 weeks
after her wedding i
just hugged him
his hot tears almost
close enough to mix
with my own

An honest and understated wistfulness is the operative term in understanding the power many of the poems in this collection possess. Despite its ‘shock value’ title, SODOMY IS A CITY IN NEW JERSEY is infused with tenderness, affection and not a little nostalgic poignancy — as in BIRDS AND QUEENS:

at the tender age
of fourteen my mother
took me into her
bedroom to ask me
if i thought i
might be gay
in a flush
of emotion my face
turned beet red
and as hot as lava rock

Dorsey does speak out against the ways of society, and effectively so. “we came here to watch the words burn/golden like shelley’s sperm/like cassius clay’s draft card,” he writes in the concluding poem DOCTOR BUKOWSKI’S MONSTER. Yet even here, he brings it down to the compassionately personal and minute.

like the embers of johnny cash’s
last folsom cigarette
like the senseless dying of the light
we were built to rage against
like freedom fighters
searching for a match
in the rain

In the end, it is this tenderness and particularity of the human experience in the midst of a heated political witness that makes his poetry most winning, and most worth revisiting.

2 Responses to “REVIEW: SODOMY is a CITY in NEW JERSEY by George Wallace”

  1. Great review of a great book by a great dude….

  2. made me want the book. dudes definitely got a fresh perspective

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