Tuesday, January 30, 2007


“If you tell a sad story in a bar,
people will laugh, and you
must feel better.”

Whenever I read a book for the purpose of reviewing it, it becomes a kind of Rorschach test of my biases and sensibilities. In the margins, and on any other surface left blank between the book’s covers, I scribble notes about those things that surprise me, inform me, move me, puzzle me, and sometimes perplex me.

On the title page of Jeffrey Franklin’s For the Lost Boys, I wrote, “Keen observations—Jeff has something to say—these are vignettes from his daily life—a wide range of expression and emotion—pleasant in their sounds, their poem-ness.” And about those lines about “a sad story in a bar,” I wrote, “See page 44. How true.”

For the Lost Boys (Ghost Road Press, 2006) is Jeffrey Franklin’s first book-length collection of poems. The poems are diverse in their style and his subjects range from family to travel to women’s lipstick. Constant throughout is a dexterous use of language and music.

Two poems that I think represent the best of Mr. Franklin’s writing are "The Gun in the Chair" and "Cookin' with the David Jones Trio." “The Gun in the Chair” leads us to a genuine insight into our human nature. Participating in such discoveries is a primary reason I read—and write—poetry. In "The Gun in the Chair," I felt led, with that sense of inevitability that is in a good poem, to the conclusion. A conclusion that is still surprising.


My first shot caught him cleanly
in the crease of his hip
as he lay on his side in a sniper’s pose,
a crippling wound at the least, probably
death, if paintballs were bullets.
I had chosen my moment,
ducked from the cover of warped plywood
nailed between aspens, and sprinted
through the close trees, crouching to pant
among the sagebrush of the open prairie.
Running hunched over the clasped gun,
I circled his position, pinned down as he was
by the pneumatic twap-twap-twap
of my partner’s fire.
I would like to say
I noted the Ming blue of the sky,
admired the patterning of the aspens,
their bark a creamy green khaki,
but instead I felt a quietly murderous joy.
He was, is, my son.
I had not wanted to join in this game,
the current war raging and open-ended,
he nearly of age. How could I be sure
he would know the difference I just
had forgotten? He and his buddies
cajoled me, but it was I who chose to play.
After all,
I had seen the gun, known to see it,
in the broken-off chair leg, its tapered foot
a nozzle, the two spindles, hacked short
with my father’s saw, spaced just right
for machine-gun handles, and I knew
how to make that sound with my tongue
like bursts of rattle-snake mojo,
then yell, “I got you, you’re dead!”
I would like to say
I yelled it once more when I saw
the unnatural splatter—pink blood!—
in the crease of his hip where he lay,
but the down vest crumpled there
softened the impact so that for an instant
he did not register the hit, as happens
to some in the heat of battle,
and I, I chose instead
to shoot him again
this time on the skin of his arm,
the welt a red-rimmed crater days after.

If I could understand why I did that
we might do without war.
I would like to say
paintballs are only paintballs
not bullets, but then
the chair would be only the chair.

I also read and write poems for the pure pleasure of language, and its ability to help us celebrate our lives. From that perspective, “Cookin’ with the David Jones Trio” is, for me, about as good as it gets. This poem showcases Mr. Franklin's skills as a poet and let's his personality shine through. His technical decision to arrange the poem in tercets performs both musical and metaphorical functions. All of which results in an homage to a father that can be physically and emotionally felt.


Life is fun when you’re good at something good.
—William Matthews

In Saturday’s kitchen in jeans,
Dad wound-up his wrist,
looping the fat yolks

into a pinwheel of yellows,
concentrating ease
into speed, and just let

go, let the greased
sockets of the wrist spin
on the elbow’s flywheel, let

the eggs, as if by their own
momentum, merge into
a smear of galaxy and rise

with the ring of the whisk to fine-
beaded froth. Last night,
the jazz trio’s pianist

urged the first few notes
from between his shoulders, listening,
eyes closed, for them

to alight somewhere far
away, then followed or
was pulled along like a man after

spilled papers, the wind
cartwheeling them now in overlapping
riffs, shavings of sunlight

tumbling across the emerald
lawn and down the rumpled
hillside into the shared-steeped

funk beneath the trees where
the bassman joined him,
approaching thunder felt

in the ground, in the bones, startling
a flung fist of starlings
from beneath the eaves of

the baby grand, a swoop
of notes dispersing, satin
shadows rippling across

hedgerow and rock-wall off
the fringe-lipped precipice,
the drummer’s snare and slash

of cymbals, the foot-pedaled
drum jumping hearts
into our throats and out

above the dazzling waves,
miraculous suspension, oh,
take me, let me go

let me hover in the wind’s
chamber, drift up and
eddy in a thermal, even

as horizon comes a sweep
of thunderhead, hot rain
strafing the city, its

soot-grimed cars riddled
with leopard spots, tenement
windows rattling prismatic

streaks, a whale’s moan
of sweet anguish from a thumb
drawn across the conga’s

skin, the arse-end
of a handle sliding down
the cymbal’s brass spine,

and ending when the eggs hit
the skillet, the sizzle buttering
our appetites for artifice made

natural, grace given back
by hands that thank. Thank you,
Dad, Daddy, Daddio.

Poems like these make For the Lost Boys worthy of attention. Naturally, not all its poems rang true to my ear. Sometimes, the ordinary event at the center of a poem didn’t quite measure up to the high language used to describe it, and more than one poem left me feeling let down by a forced epiphany. (I suppose these statements reveal my bias toward plain language and understatement). In the end, Mr. Franklin has something to say, and he says it well.

This is the second book from Ghost Road Press I’ve had the pleasure to review. As was the case with Steve Meuske’s A Mnemonic for Desire, the production value is high and the cover art, in this case a painting by Jim Franklin, is consistent with the book’s mood and feeling. Ghost Road Press can be proud of this book, too, as can its author.

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