Reviewed by Jefferson Navicky
102 pp Deerbrook Editions
Perhaps it was because I read David Sloan’s new book of poems over the winter holiday, which has become, rather than the season of snow, the season of ice. Or perhaps it was because the holiday scene depicted in his poem “Holiday on Ice” was so spot-on, so of-the-moment, some contemporary cross between National Lampoon’s Vacation and the start of a Power Outage horror film. While both of those reasons undoubtedly play into the poem’s remarkableness, the poem lingered in my mind for weeks not because of its timeliness, but because of its unsettling brilliance. Sloan’s second book, A Rising, is full of many such poems.
In “Holiday on Ice” a family gathers for Thanksgiving, and if family tensions aren’t exactly thick, they’re at least palpable. Papi refuses to wear a surgical mask to hold the baby; son-in-law cuts down grandma’s pie as too cinnamony; and two letters – fittingly f and u – are missing in Scrabble. If we all haven’t been there, we at least know what he’s talking about. Then the power goes out, and Sloan gives us the first image of the poem that stopped me: “The glow/ from nine mobile phones made little cones/ of bluish light.” The holy mixes with the technologically profane, all of it sewn together with Sloan’s deceptively intricate phrasing (listen to those long o’s), the kind of craftsmanship for which the maker’s work hides behind a smooth exterior like a pocket watch whose inner workings and windings we barely notice, only trust.
Sloan declares, in the collection’s second poem “Sound-Traps and Trumpets,” he “[gets] stuck more on sounds than words…more often I impale myself trying to vault/ an iron-pronged fence” [Sloan’s emphasis]. His gesture of sacrifice is the reader’s boon, because not only does Sloan’s subtle and not insignificant humor arise out of such a sense of sound, so too does the sudden surprise of finality at the poem’s end. After we’d been lulled into its pleasing “riffs/ and ditties”, we’re jolted: “the only real difference/ between words and swords is the shape of a snake.” Indeed. And this reader felt nothing but the quick bite of satisfaction at this quotidian but profound ending, and the way it brings the poem’s sounds into a larger sense of language.
The collection changes gears between illuminating ekphrastic poems on paintings by Winslow Homer or N.C. Wyeth or a photo of Ezra Pound by Richard Avedon, to fine-eyed appreciations of the natural world (as well as its disquieting deluges of frogs from the sky in the fine poem “Little Egypt”), to beautifully-paced narrative poems like “Holiday on Ice” or “Cockeyed Lazarus” in which a rising-from-the-dead rooster creates a striking portrait of an animal’s will to live and a human’s guilt at trying to squelch it. However, as a reviewer, I would be remiss to not focus on the poems of partnership and family life. In most ways, these poems are the heart of A Rising. These poems are tender, honest, and full of a big-hearted love. They are also laced with Sloan’s almost gleeful, anarchic sense of humor: “If grandparenting isn’t a bloodsport, why/ do I always feel as if I’m losing?” The poet can’t compete with grandma, who always seems to know what to say and what to do. Such is the eternal plight of men in family; we so often don’t intuit a need, and then we pretend we don’t care, but we really do. The end of “Competitive Grandparenting” will resonate with pretty much every writer I know: “All I want is a wee win/ of my own – to be adored, then left alone.”
“Holiday on Ice” is one of those rich, consoling and confounding family poems, but its greatness comes out of its sense of disquiet. The second image from “Holiday on Ice” that stayed with me for weeks occurs at the end of the poem. “Papi and Grandma hit a patch of black ice// heading to Freeport, slid into a snow bank bordering/ a cemetery…” Papi gets out to push the car as Grandma slides behind the wheel, but
the ice is almost skate-able, so even with balky knees
he started doing little tricks to get cars to stop.
He minced, twirled and flutter-kicked. She said
she worried at first about his getting hit, but after
screaming at him to stop when he started pirouetting,
one hand in a bird shape above his head, the other
holding the ruffle of his invisible tutu, after he collapsed
like an apple detached from its twisted stem
into his own dizzying guffaws, she said she hoped
he would get hit. Later, she insisted it had been a joke,
but the ice everywhere made that hard to believe.
I love how the poem swerves, first toward peril with the car crash and the ice (I half-expected the narrator to be clipped by a passing car, or fall and break a kneecap), and then it swerves again toward an irreverent humor in the face of this uncertainty tinged with nature’s malice. “Like an apple detached from its twisted stem” is such a lovely way to describe a fall, both inevitable and determinedly human. And I love the last line: “but the ice everywhere made that hard to believe.” Nature is beautiful, as Sloan shows us throughout this collection, but it also has a mind of her own; when you’re caught up in the storm, sometimes all you can do is surrender. Such masterful handling of humor and danger, love and catastrophe, slipperiness and solidity, makes A Rising so easy to believe, and so satisfying.
Jefferson Navicky was born in Chicago, and grew up in Southeastern Ohio. He is the author of the poetic novella, The Book of Transparencies, and the story collection, The Paper Coast, as well as the chapbooks, Uses of a Library, and Map of the Second Person. His work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Electric Literature, Hobart, Tarpaulin Sky, and Fairy Tale Review. He is the archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection, and teaches English at Southern Maine Community College. Jefferson lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and puppy.