We admit we do not read enough poetry. We also admit that we don't always know what to say about it when we read it. Themes will grab us, feelings, certain lines, and that all seems acceptable. It's just that unlike with fiction or nonfiction, we don't necessarily see an arc for these ruminations building as we read. That's not always the case, but it is often enough that it is embarrassing to us, and speaks, maybe, to our not reading enough poetry. Hence we go full circle, and find ourselves asking where we should start with the two most recent collections we've read: the slaughterhouse poems by the dave newman and May I Have This Dance? by the Mathieu Cailler. Luckily when it comes to these reads we have an out, or maybe it's an in? We are familiar with these authors' work as fiction writers, novels by the former, and short stories by the latter. So we have ideas coming in, as well as great love for both and their growing oeuvres. What we know is that Dave Newman, arguably one of America's least appreciated novelists - and yes we know there are many, but he gets our vote - writes about blue collar and small town men trying to pay bills, while engaging in all kinds of self-destructive behavior that mainly serves to undermine their true intellect and potential. That he does so as beautifully as he does, with his attention to drugs, drinking, fucking, dysfunctional families, hustling, violence, and a world of work that exists just one step above the poverty line, and that this translates to the slaughterhouse poems does not surprise at all, but merely extends our appreciation of his skills. What we would add, is that this collection is super finely focused on one young man's experience working in a slaughterhouse on the way to other things, we hope, and in that way hangs well with all of Newman's fine work. But it is also being poetry, and so we get shit like this:
"He was a meat cutter
40 years old
and made his living, as he once said
"carving real big roasts into real little roasts."
He stood at the top of the food chain
in the slaughterhouse, an okay guy
though once he threw a cow ball
at my head as a joke then pointed
his knife in a viscious stabbing motion
when I whipped the slimy testicle back.
Now he said, "My wife is leaving me
and my daughter is fucking a drug addict.
What about you?"
What about you Mathieu Cailler? What indeed. Mathieu Cailler is a great short story writer, full of humanity, and broken families and so much fucking empathy for those still standing after things start falling apart. If one can be both sweeping and granular at once, and can one, yes, and what do you call it, we're not sure. Good writing? Maybe. The human condition whatever that is, why not. But whatever one calls it, Cailler owns it. He loves his characters, and he feels for them, and it shows, word after word, and line after line, whether in his short stories, or now these beautiful poems, which are again, sweeping and full of both details and love and passages like this:
"Dad was happy he was going to go;
He told me that a man could only do so many things,
and that he had done what he wanted.
He'd told me desires and ambitions were finite,
and that life was well made.
He'd told me that existence was like a road trip-
the beginning and middle were fun,
but towards the end,
you just wanted to get to the hotel
and kick off your shoes.
And so this too is an end, but do know that the slaughterhouse poems and May I Have This Dance? are sure to change your life as they have ours, and the words will linger... if only for a moment, which is still pretty nice.