Review by José Angel Araguz

by Douglas Goetsch


Slipstream Press
Dept. W-1
P.O. Box 2071
Niagara Falls, NY 14301
40 pp., $12.00

I guess I'm working with accumulated dirt.

This line, found in the later half of Douglas Goetsch’s new chapbook Your Whole Life, easily sums up the theme and intent of this collection of poems. The poem in which the line occurs, Vacuuming, goes through the details of a marriage from the point of view of the wife:

We were newlyweds but I already knew
Wedding vows were for wedding chapels;
Marriage was a house of well-tended secrets...

These few lines have the speaker transition from a painful memory of an abortion kept secret into justifying it in light of the aftermath, showcasing Goetsch's superb ability to turn phrases and draw power from the rhetoric of conversation.
Whether it is marriage, race or childhood that they explore, Goetsch's poems work with the dirt of lives lived fully aware of their fleeting nature. Early in the collection, there is an urgent need to sound off, to make clear a view of the world that is both one of conviction and inclusiveness. In Poems You're Not Allowed to Write, when the speaker declares:

...if you wrote about this stuff you might lose
A friend--a homeless Christian infertile feminist blues
Harmonica-playing friend,

The poem comes close to being merely a diatribe, albeit a hilarious one. The turn at the end, however, when the speaker turns the focus on the reader by saying, "...and now / I can hardly wait, because it's your turn to talk." the poem takes on a new dimension, showing an awareness of the power of provocation. This move takes material that is shocking and gives it the muscle of argument.
There is a similar moment in the poem Gone, whose first line, "It's easy to want someone dead", sets the tone for another would-be rant, except that the speaker turns this line on himself in describing an incident in which he disturbs the sleep of his "father's father":

I was six and he flung my head
Into a table. He's dead now. What else
Do you need to know about him?

This turning to the reader shows several things: it is a speaker refusing to indulge in self-pity; it is also another purposeful use of provocation. The poem, by condensing in three lines a horrific scene in the form of an argument, impresses upon the reader the full meaning of the opening line. While it is easy to want someone dead, it is a harder thing to see what that want really means.
The poem Sirens, New York City gives a clue as to what this impulse towards provocation arises from. Here, the speaker poses the question, "How many millions of us have made love while / fire engines roared past a window?", and proceeds to speak about numbness and what it brings out in people:

...Sometimes I hear
A long skid but no crash, and it feels disappointing,
Like someone playing all but the last note of a scale
Then leaving the room...

And later:

...I confess I was more thrilled
Than horrified watching that first footage of the jet
Disappearing into the South Tower as though
Branding itself into flesh. I knew it was right
For them to stop showing those people jumping
In their business attire, but a part of me thought
They were magnificent and wanted to see it.

This candid talk of expectation, of indulging vicariously in danger, of celebrating it while only experiencing the risk of the bystander, the witness, all of it builds up against the feeling that follows, the way that, " glass in the surf, / the city buried us back into our anonymous selves." The character of cities, of crowds, of feeling small beside skyscrapers, parallels that of danger and anonymity, both of which command a sort of response, a declaration of self that is acted out in these poems. In the handling of volatile emotions in the face of the transient nature of life, Goetsch's poems do what good poems do and remind us of the soul, its place and its power.
Goetsch's years as an educator show their influence in the middle part of the book, the poems there existing in the world of classrooms and childhood, both with their lessons and expectation. The collection reaches some of its more poignant moments in the poems that address childhood. "Children need so little", begins the speaker in The Kingdom:

pennies for the fountain, bread for the sparrows...
Even rich kids know there's nothing better
Than a tree house creaking in the wind.
Talking into tin cans, gazing down at the rain,
They understand what a kingdom is...

Subject matter that in other, less insightful hands would stray into sheer sentimentality is led here into an evocation of awe, the awe of what childhood holds as seen after the fact. Whereas the poems that began the collection railed against a world seen as plundered and overwhelming, the poems in the middle focus on childhood and show the flipside: if to an adult mind the world is a chaotic mess one must manage to get through, this same world was once simply big, like the first time you see an elephant big. If it is unfathomable for the children in the classroom of To a Teacher to see, "a 3 in front of a row of zeros," and then be asked, "to believe / the impossible: there was only / one of each of us in the world," it is due to inexperience; this same feeling is felt by the adult speaker earlier in these poems, only what is unfathomable is how someone could not believe in their own singularity. The heart of this collection shows itself in poems that establish that singularity.
The tension between knowing or being told and understanding fully is at the center of the stand-out poem Recess (from Rattle #26). Here, a female teacher supervises a game of Duck Duck Goose while contemplating choices made in her life; she watches a little girl, "in an endless left hand turn," delay her choosing of a boy to chase her in the game, and realizes:

                ...she can't figure out whether
The girl is powerless or helpless,
        As she blinks back tears and blows
                The whistle to end this.

Here again is the masterful turn of phrase, the accumulated weight of what has occurred in the poem let to sink into the meaningful word choice of, "powerful or helpless," the image of an indecisive child in a game lifting the poem’s intensity to a pitch that bursts on the last line's, "to end this," the implied meaning underlining the simultaneous power and helplessness of the teacher.
This poem stands out in the collection for a few reasons: it is one of the few poems in which the form works towards the poem's effect, the lines cascading into each other in sets of three, the effect being that the eye is led into a pattern mimicking the game played in the piece. What also works well in this poem is the way the speaker pulls away towards the end, leaving the world explored, highlighted and yet without resolution; the game does not end and the teacher is still heavy with regret. The image does the work of driving home the poem's force. This type of move in a poem is crucial in this collection because of how it embodies the way in which our lives themselves are without resolution.
Many of the poems here in the middle tend toward having endings that, while not exactly handing the reader their meaning, leave the poems comfortably with varying results. In Bill, for example, we get the portrait of a little league coach at McDonald's:

Where the winning coach was supposed to
Treat his team, though we lost every game.
Twice a week, Bill was up at the register
Counting out a stack of crumpled ones.

The power of this poem lies in its self-consciousness; earlier, the speaker tells us:

...naturally you want to hear how we
Became champions, and I want to tell you
But we stunk.

The wry nature of this confession has the feel of self-deprecation, a sense of humor not afraid to take shots at itself. By the end, there has been an accumulation of emotion, of sympathy brought on by self-mockery, that lends power and poignancy to the phrase, crumpled ones. In making his money count, Bill makes the kid count.
Similarly, the poem Next Door gives a portrait of a neighbor that is both sympathetic yet confrontational:

My first political argument was with Mr. Gomes...
And I listened because we were riding in his Cadillac
Back from the Jets-Dolphins game at Shea stadium...

Slowly the details are dropped that form an argument of class difference, an argument that is unique in its humanity:

...and I'm sorry for remembering him
Lifting one hip slightly from the plush leather seat
To break wind, then saying "Excuse me" without
The least bit of embarrassment...

What is unique here is the way the speaker, in the midst of sizing up his neighbor in a subtly combative tone (note the inclusion of "plush leather seat"), takes the time to include such a humanizing detail as passing gas. This speaker seems determined to recall things as clearly and honestly as he can, both what separates and joins the neighbor and him. What is impressive about these lines is how they show that the speaker and the neighbor are separated not only by means but also by the speaker’s sense of shame and the neighbor's implied lack of it. After such subtle and insightful storytelling, one is surprised, then, to see the sweeping finality of the poem's conclusion:

It wasn't wealth or politics that got tickets to the Jets
It was life, and they had more of it than we did.

There is something off in the bite of this ending. Perhaps it is the way that, while the poem does go into detail about the neighboring family's affluence, we are given little about the speaker's own circumstances--which is fine, there is much power in the unspoken, yet one wonders if it is enough for the judgment in those last two lines. One can see here an indulgence that rarely pops up in the rest of the poems of the collection, Goetsch's gift for the well-handled phrase used for what could be seen as unwarranted condemnation.
Another misstep occurs in the poem Wisdom's Passing which chronicles various bits of wisdom handed down from teachers to students, all named and given space. Here, the confusion of growing up amidst so many conflicting and varying voices and sources of knowledge is rendered here by the speaker like the true survivor that inhabits many of Goetsch's best poems. Pointing out the inadequacies of teachers can only go so far before becoming merely spiteful, though. When the poem concludes, telling about one of the teachers going on to write a newspaper column, one wonders about the logic of the speaker's argument/thought:

He called the column "Wisdom's Passing"

And it certainly was, long before Reagan
Said "Facts are stupid things," before Clinton
"didn't inhale," and before everyone declared

A "War on Terror"--as if you could
Bomb an idea any more than you can
Silence a falling forest with a theory.

There are several things in these last lines that conflict with what the poem as a whole has been doing up to this point: the speaker has left the world of school in the last few stanzas, bringing in a parallel between the adult world of politics and the student's world. Whereas the rest of the poem dealt with the faults and quirks of teachers and students in a humanizing light, the end here attempts to provide a parallel in the lies of government officials. What is off about the parallel is what the poem itself embodies, how the speaker knows the teachers personally and can pick their faults out front row while they only know the figures of Reagan and Clinton in the public, impersonal way every American knows them. This bald move to elevate the subject of the poem from personal recollection towards a more generalized, relatable level for the reader stunts a poem whose power resides in the personal. The problem is not that the speaker is unrelatable -- who has not, in the midst of shaping one's self-identity, questioned the credibility of authority figures? -- but that the speaker does not follow through with the recollection. Bringing in politics leaves the speaker taking pot shots at a past they seemed not to have learned from and then tossing off an ending where the phrase "War on Terror" is used in the poem the same way it is used in the media--for shock value.
The later half of the collection centers in on the theme of estrangement. Here, two poems stand out: A Guest for Christmas and Delia. A Guest poses an eleven stanza-long question, detailing the circumstances of the guest of the title in terms of the "you". A whole life blooms through the poem' stanzas in details like:

Have you ever spent Christmas in a house
Where there was no one from your family
And you didn't have a present for anybody
Though there was one for you,
An emergency gift, not too expensive,
For either gender, such as a journal
Or photo frame, and it shamed you
To receive it...

And later:

her much older sister drying tears as she
Greeted you, explaining it was only
Puccini, which you now heard wafting
From a backroom...

Hint at the guest's circumstances but do not overtly tell the story; rather what is allowed to resonate is the feeling of generosity that the speaker is impressed with. Posed as a question towards a "you", the poem seems taut with emotion, each detail pulling tighter on the reader to keep track. Also, there is a subtle subversion in the use of question as a form--Goetsch is able to turn a hypothetical situation into an ode in praise of kindness in general and Jane in particular:

the only color you remember: Jane's
Green tights, and you noticed how
Thick her ankles were--Jane, who seemed
So glamorous in high school, who was
Now simply kind...

This poem takes a contemporary example of estrangement and turns it out, shows how people can overcome it. The same way Jane was once "glamorous", a word that implies intimidation and distance, and is now "simply kind", so the guest is welcomed in as such; though he is "wondered about all day", he is never treated as a stranger.
The poem Delia takes on estrangement from a different perspective:

My best friend gave me a girl...
He said she'd do anything
Because she'd done everything to him.

This claim gets the speaker to wonder:

What tells some men they can treat
Beautiful women like trained animals?
Where do they get their gall, their successes?

Thus, the first stanza sets up the gender-specific expectations: the girl as submissive sex object and the speaker as the entitled male. What happens in the second stanza exemplifies the kind of unpeeling of layers and exposing of human frailty that makes Goetsch's poems moving:

Later, when I caressed her legs, she got out
Of bed, picked up one of my razors, ran the tub
And re-shaved them...
...I owed her presence in my bed--
Her wanting to please me--to some kind
Of poison, and however it got in her.
Now I'll tell you: I felt helpless
To help myself to this gift of a girl,
And this upset her. No: it insulted her.

This unraveling of superficial expectations played out in the context of two people who end up vulnerable before each other and yet unable to understand each other is made all the more poignant in the light of the other poems of this collection. Throughout, what has stood out more than anything is the theme of difference and how nothing really prepares us to deal with our difference--whether it be race, class, or gender--except for experience, which teaches the things one can carry with them. So one is not surprised at the end of Delia to find that the speaker has no answer for his original questions, but is left with more questions:

Have you ever felt the world was full of edges?
Edges to cut you, edges to plunge from,
To make a summer day seem dangerous?

It is this type of questioning, this unflinching yearning, that moves the poems in this collection from storytelling into revelation. A moment in the title poem, Your Whole Life, speaks to the power and relevance of this type of inquiry:

What child doesn't ask, "Why
Am I me? Why aren't I that
Tall boy or that pretty girl who
Stays out of trouble? Or a frog
Or a Martian?"

The insight from which Goetsch speaks from is earned through an awareness of one's own accumulated dirt. For this reason, when the speaker of The Sorceress of 97 th Street says:

..."Life is good."
Simple words a child could say,
But it took me forty years.

One can not help but believe him.



José Angel Araguz has had work published in Rattle #28, Blue Collar Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, and The Windward Review among other places.  He holds degrees from the College of Santa Fe and New York University.  He currently resides in Eugene, OR with his fiancée.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.