Review by Barrett Warner
A LITTLE IN LOVE A LOT
by Paul Hostovsky
Main Street Rag
PO BOX 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227-7001
2011, 90 pp.,$14.00
Journeyman poet Paul Hostovsky is lucky that Major League Baseball doesn’t drug test poetry. The piss in his collection, A Little in Love A Lot, is full of steroids. His poems begin so easy and innocent, but then the juice kicks and Hostovsky plugs in another amp. In the sonnet “Pop Flies,” two buddies hit pop flies to each other. A bully comes along, walking his Doberman Pinscher:
He asks me gruffly for a turn at bat, and the Doberman
the bat and ball. A wind dies on the schoolyard.
He tosses the ball up, swings at the exact second
that the Doberman, sniffing a game, jumps for the ball
and catches the bat in his head—suddenly there’s blood
everywhere, the Doberman’s seizing, dying…
What happens in the schoolyard tends to happen in the bedroom–a rumbling before each poem transforms choir boy into werewolf. Hostovsky skillfully uses both personalities, the night and the day of himself, to cut through the world’s barriers in order to feel empathy. He writes: “The way out/ isn’t under or/ over or around/ or even through./ It’s with. With/ is the only way out.”
Make no mistake, these are not dark alley poems, but Hostovsky’s fears of dying unloved and alone shade the Wonder Years neighborhood of these ballads, rants, and comedies. For most of us the great abyss is only the shallow grave. Hostovsky’s is the Grand Canyon. If you squint you can see him at the bottom working a shovel, digging the hole deeper. When he reaches Hell he keeps on going, laughing at times, yelling out his love songs: “the background music…/ so loud it was in the foreground.”
These urgent poems of desperate, funny, compelling observations are placated by the metaphor of love and sex in the author’s quest for empathy. True connection between spouses, lovers, friends, neighbors, demented aunts, fathers and sons is almost impossible for Hostovsky, in spite of an otherworldly harmony teasing him at every jagged turn. Porcupines mate after all. So do elephants. Even a turkey buzzard will raise its feathered hem and wink for love.
Move over Woody Allen. In “Love and Death” a couple makes love “on her all-encompassing couch” and afterwards, sipping tea, the speaker volunteers, “I love sitting here opposite you in our underwear,/ talking about death.” Hostovsky is just warming up. “I assert there really is no death, there is only// life, which has no opposite because/ it is all-encompassing.” His lover then tells the story of a relative dying of pancreatic cancer, three months of the kind of pain no one else could bear for three hours. The speaker gives her “a peck” and goes “into the kitchen to make more tea.” There, he watches the flame for three minutes waiting for the water to boil.
The characters in Hostovsky’s poems look out the same window but witness very different versions of life. Agreements are rare, polite arguments are plenty. People seem to work out a system of taking turns being right and wrong, giving love, receiving it. “The Debate at Duffy’s” begins: “She said that sex was a yearning of the soul./ He said it was a very compelling argument/ of the body.” The two argue the length of the baseball game being played on television while filling and draining their cups until she wins “in the bottom of the ninth.” Another poem, “Kiss,” takes place on a train “heading south/ all the seats/ facing north/ like the meeting/ of east and west/ our heads turning slowly/ on the headrests/ towards each other/ like two completely/ different ways of life/ coming together.” The poem ends with the suggestion of kissing: “exchanging aloft/ the moist and crumpled/ messages”–of our lips, Hostovsky wisely lets the reader suppose.
Opposites might attract, but they also might blow each other’s brains out. “We are all attracted to suffering/ and repulsed by it, too./ This doesn’t make the world go around exactly./ It isn’t a law of physics technically./ But it may have something to do/ with the relationships of bodies/ in the universe.” “Cholera” parodies magic realism. A lover has read Love in the Time of Cholera whereas the speaker can’t get past fifty pages without dreaming of cholera. He says, “I think cholera is one of those words, that,/ if divorced from its meaning, would make a beautiful/ name for a girl. Like Treblinka.” The lover “gave me a pained look in the dream then, and I wondered/ if it meant you didn’t agree with me, or if it meant/ that what you were eating didn’t agree with you./ Either way, it was plain to see that you were suffering.”
Hostovsky modulates this contrary world of apartness between intimates by offering several poems which convey the resemblances between strangers. In “Waiting Room” a woman with a portable oxygen tank stands in front of the exotic fish tank: “The woman looks like the fish/ with her bulging eyes and her yellow rain coat.” In “Uncanny”:
Bob Dylan in his late 60’s
looks a lot like my mother.
It’s partly the nose,
Partly the big hair.
Hostovsky understands that gesture is essential to holding the doubtful reader at bay. He’s made a career out of it, working as a sign language interpreter. One of the hearing, his is a blended family of a deaf partner, and one deaf and one hearing child. Perhaps this experience is why a young speaker doesn’t just raise his hand for emphasis, he holds his “palm up in the air like one who is trying to ascertain the truth about whether or not it has started to rain.” Likewise, the co-ed in his German class has a charming defect: “I whispered Ich liebe dich into her umlaut—that pair of moles on her left earlobe.” Such fantastic detail and kinetic gesture would rival that in any silent movie. They keep the poems moving too quickly for the reader to dare jump off. It’s best to just hang on for the climax. Some poets like Billy Collins will gently lay down a reader in the soft bed of a poem’s ending and perhaps give the reader’s toe a wiggle pinch. Hostovsky often will leave us lying in a ditch, dashed and wrecked with enervating surprises. His brilliant seduction begins when we’re just coming-to after an unexpected turn. Hostovsky weaves the abstract and the concrete when we’re most vulnerable. In “Tree Poem” a father sits in a tree contemplating suicide after a day at work. He does this every day when he arrives home. After twenty lines of deliberation, “he climbed down from the tree in the car in the garage/ every time, and walked back into his life with a few/ leaves and twigs still sticking to his head.” Sticking. Nice, very nice.
“Miracles” also weaves the abstract, but also is one of those rare wildcards Hostovsky sometimes deals which explain the greater sum:
Spiritual texts are the most boring in the world.
None of them mentions a bicycle,
or a ferris wheel, or baseball, or sea lions, or ice cream.
They just lump them all together into “the world.”
The “world of appearances.”The “world of illusions.”
You can walk through this world and not
believe it for a minute…
And when the doctor comes in with his numbers
which are your numbers, you can
not believe that either. You can let them fall from his lips,
skim your ear, pool on the floor where your eyes
and his eyes have fallen. He won’t
mention the bicycle, or the ferris wheel which is
taking up a lot of room right now in the little
examining room where a sea lion has clambered up
onto the table and is barking, and the baseballs are flying,
and the vendors are hawking ice cream—because he can’t
see them. He can’t perform a miracle.
A Little in Love A Lot is Hostovsky’s miracle, because finally, the miracle is not about sea lions or feeling detached from a lover or dying. The miracle is language itself. These are poems about poetry, each of them an impossible glancing shot, salted with nods to the masters. Writing about a graveyard where he steals quarters off “Naughton’s tombstone” which are left there by descendants, Hostovsky is writing about stealing from traditional poetry, getting it how he can, “because I need them/ for the parking meters/ when I’m driving…Naughton has plenty/ and doesn’t drive anymore anyway.” Alone in a Burger King, Hostovsky remembers Rilke’s commandment about making art, and guiltily believes he cannot call forth riches from his experience. Quite suddenly a family enters, “and while their parents order they play/ duck duck goose, touching all the tables,/ and all the chairs, the girl behind the boy/ following him, copying him and laughing/ louder and louder, because it’s all so wonderful/ here at Burger King, which they seem to have/ all to themselves, except for one man in a booth/ smiling, writing something down on a piece of paper.”
Barrett Warner’s poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, Comstock Review, Natural Bridge, Freshwater, Quarter After Eight, and others. His chapbook Til I’m Blue in the Face was published by Tropos Press.