Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: "How to Say Goodbye" by James Valvis

Poets often complain that poetry itself has a dismally small audience. Well, part of the reason for that is that we don't have nearly enough poets like James Valvis! While there's room out there for every conceivable style and aesthetic, I think it's safe to say that Valvis is something special: a poet who can speak to virtually any audience, who balances emotional resonance with technical craft, humor with intellect, and can turn a phrase (or a story) with astonishing sleight-of-hand.

I first came across Valvis's poem, "Woodwork Redemption," some years ago and ever since then, I have been teaching that poem in my classes as a perfect example of a lyrically taut narrative whose use of near-perfect line breaks and careful attention paid to the count of stressed versus unstressed syllables works magic with the reader's expectations.

Those are fairly technical elements, though. So, while I think it's safe to call Valvis "a poets' poet," these are also poems that can be enjoyed by virtually any audience. And that's Valvis's strength. He takes a medium often overrun by egotism and navel-gazing pretension and interjects a refreshing dose of humility, humor, and grit. Even his most autobiographical poems manage to be self-reflective without being self-indulgent (a tough feat to pull off) and continue to haunt the reader long after the page has been turned. The key, I think, is Valvis's ability to tap into universal human experiences not be being vague or lyrically obscure, but by presenting detailed scenes with such finely crafted attention that we feel like we ourselves are in Valvis's shoes, watching his mother (wife of an abusive alcoholic) glumly shuffling her losing Bingo cards ("Waiting"), or Valvis himself as a child, taping his bat with Scotch tape and so becoming the object of neighborhood ridicule ("The Wizard of Odd").

Valvis handles all his subjects--including aging and divorce--by blending academic wisdom with the tousled grace of a stand-up comic. For instance, the before-mentioned "The Wizard of Odd" is simultaneously sad and walk-into-the-wall funny, while other poems express jaw-dropping tenderness to leave even the most seasoned, cynical reader of poetry speechless. Valvis is also the patron saint of the Hail Mary twist ending. For instance, in "Lifting," we see the narrator trying to get back into the swing of things in the gym, working out next to a bodybuilder with arms "the size of a horse's neck." The bodybuilder seems to regard the narrator smugly but after a quick exchange, our expectations are totally turned on their heads. Then, in "A Halo of Smoke," we see the narrator's dying father still refusing to quit smoking, joined by a reluctantly resigned narrator who then hears the mother coughing in the back room--a simple but gut-wrenching metaphor for an entire marriage and a single line that crafts immeasurable sympathy for a figure who isn't even mentioned until the final line of the poem.

Readers of poetry (like readers of any other genre) are human beings, meaning they're susceptible to being wooed by fads and charmed by those who favor style over substance. James Valvis's "How to Say Goodbye" isn't a flashy book in terms of stream of consciousness rambling or hipster gimmicks, but in terms of talent and craft, this book is heads and shoulders above virtually anything else on the market. Valvis's work reminds me of some of my favorite books by Stephen Dobyns, George Bilgere, Tony Hoagland, and Dorianne Laux. What's stunning, though, is that "How to Say Goodbye" is his first book, even though the poems within have been written (and many of them published) over many years. In other words, the craft and care that went into this book is simply astonishing and quite frankly, you could add a zero to the price tag and it would still be worth every penny.

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