Review by Andrew Kozma
BENDING UNDER THE YELLOW POLICE TAPES
by James Doyle
Steel Toe Books
Department of English
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11086
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1086
89 pp., $12.00
James Doyle is a nice guy, and that's clear through every one of his poems. The words, if nothing else, convey the poet behind them, the guiding intelligence, the particular viewpoint taking the world and filtering it into this specific linguistic sequence.
This is not Doyle's first book, though his most recent (Einstein Considers a Sand Dune, 2004) was by Steel Toe Books as well, which says much for their loyalty to their authors. In fact, this one was solicited. This, along with the fact that all but 12 of the 62 poems in the book were published by 40 magazines (many of which you would recognize), all goes to show you that not only is Doyle a nice guy, but that people genuinely like his poems, and many editors like his poems so much they want to associate their magazines with them (and him).
Which is to say, I don't like this book, but I'm glad that someone else does.
Which is to say, Randell Jarrell used to talk about poetry books, in reviews, in terms of those poems he would have been sorry never to have read, regardless of the quality of the book as a whole. There are no poems in Bending Under the Yellow Police Tapes that I would be sorry never to have read but, BUT, and this is an important but, there are no poems I am sorry to have read, either. There are lines and images that I would be sorry not to have come across, that affected me with real power, flashes of brilliance, either insight or emotion breaking out from under the surface of the poem to take it over, to keep bringing your eyes and your mind to that one point. Some examples are in order (in no particular order):
glass was skimming little slates
of blood across the congregation
(It Was Sunday and I Had Nothing)
It is night. The park is moving,
a huge dark vessel, slowly
through the years toward us.
(Central Park, 1901)
The fingers will grow longer
and thinner as if the only unbreakable habit
were a compulsion to point the way.
(Hands at Seventy)
one couple after another, swim away
into their true fins. The light that can't
make it to this depth and the pressure that can
glide by their bodies.
(Young Farmers in Their Saturday Best)
Doyle's style is often a mix of the surreal and the naturalistic, the real world either being set off by the strangeness of the images--the eyes that view the world--or a surreal world brought into our understanding by the matter-of-fact description of the narrator who accepts everything he experiences as natural and right. Whether it's a library dissolving, or having to live in a house with all of his dead relatives (not ghosts mind you, their corpses), or following the elephants to their burial ground while they draw every other living creature in their wake, these worlds are recognizable and not yet shocking. And, as you might surmise from the above, Doyle has interesting ideas, but something integral falls away in the execution.
Maybe it is that too often the poems have not yet found their appointed task. They exist sometimes as exercises or explorations of an idea (the dissolving library in The Library, where perfectly, expertly, books are described as dissolving; but to what end?) that have not yet coalesced. Too often, as well, poems wear their engines on their sleeve, to their detriment, unable to shed what spurred their creation (as happens with Too Bad and The Banality of Metaphor, the latter which would be stronger without the first stanza, a purposeful set up to the second stanza and sports a last line that ends up undercutting the whole). Most of these poems seem several steps away from being finished or, if finished, seem rather slight.
The title poem should be a strong example of a poet's style: In this case, it deals with the image mentioned above about the house full of dead relatives, and what is to be most shocking in the poem is the speaker's unconcern with the dead relatives. The poem sets up a world where the speaker is, for some reason, being investigated for the deaths of the relatives, but that is all dropped at the end so that the speaker can "stretch out on the bodies / and daydream about getting older." Which, in and of itself, would make for good tension, except that there's no other end to the high-tension wire; the divide between the atmosphere and the attitude isn't quite enough.
Or maybe my issue with the book is that the poems don't seem collected for any real reason, except that Doyle had enough poems written, enough published, to make up a book. Granted, the poetry world has moved more and more towards books with themes, and that may be my prejudice here--however, I believe that when poems are collected into a book, they then become beholden to that book. This doesn't mean that the book should be shoehorned into a theme, but that the poems should make sense together, should especially, if nothing else, present a unified picture of the poet. Which is not to say that the poems should be unified, but that, taken together, they should present all the varied aspects that make this poet unique. And, of course, this means that some poems work better than others, some work better with others, and some should be taken out all together. Although I doubt this is the case, it feels like Doyle's book is a collection of all the poems he's written since his last book was published. In short, it feels like a collection, not a book.
Still, despite everything I've said, there's enough here to make me interested in the poems that Doyle could write, that he hasn't written yet. His flair for the surreal overlaying the mundane (i.e., farmers going to a dance seen as fish) holds my interest, and makes me hope for what he will do when that point-of-view is tethered to something passionate, meaningful, and pointed.
And there are poems here that I enjoyed reading: Woman Gardening, Poem Wrapped in Grease Skin, Lot's Wife, Cracked Lips, and Those Were the Days, I Guess. You might notice that none of these were the poems I took lines from before. It's true, these poems aren't the flashiest, but they are the most complete, the most fully poems, multi-faceted and aware. In these poems the speaker is revealed as someone thoughtful, someone who lives to express ideas, rather than being a human shell an idea inhabits. It's this speaker, this voice of James Doyle, that I hope for more of in the future. At its clearest, the voice stops me when I'm reading, it fills the ordinary end of In Cuzco with pathos, makes these lines breathe:
Surely I can find something
to take back to the hotel. Surely tomorrow
my life will change as I walk away from it.
Andrew Kozma received his M.F.A. from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in
English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His poems
have appeared or are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Iron Horse Literary Review,
American Letters & Commentary, and Lilies and Cannonballs Review, and a non-fiction piece will soon be published by The Iowa Review. His first book of poems, City of Regret, won the Zone 3 First Book Award and was released in September of 2007. (www.andrewkozma.com)