Review by Marcus Cafagña
PREMATURE ELEGY BY FIRELIGHT
by Roger Weingarten
5400 Ramsey St
Fayetteville, NC 28311
49 pp., $12.00
Roger Weingarten, a poet known for his razor-sharp wit, has published a chapbook. Even the title of this bold and lively collection suggests the sort of painful dichotomies that Weingarten's poems negotiate. If the defining feature of contemporary verse is its personal voice, then here is a poet especially skilled at saying what need's to be said about the bad behavior of fathers, even if, in some of these poems, that father is himself.
Poems both new and selected from the Ethan Benjamin Boldt, Infant Bonds of Joy, Ghost Wrestling, and Shadow, Shadow emphasize the tenuous nature of Oedipal relations. But Weingarten never resorts to a tone that is vicious or maudlin, never allows his speaker to wallow in self-pity. In loosely patterned lines we are led through a series of dramatic scenes between fathers and sons.
Premature Elegy by Firelight opens with In the Cloud Chamber, in which a boy in the shower hears his father say he is thinking of remarrying:
Weightless in the shower, I was sailing
on my own adolescent
current of song, my voice
breaking into suds and spray
when the stall door cracked
open to a slice
of my father sliding the knot
in his tie toward his throat
asking was it all right with me
if he remarried.
Instead of giving us only what the speaker remembers as a teenager, Weingarten shifts the timeframe mid-poem from adolescence to adulthood, to a time when the speaker is himself now a father facing, from the opposite point-of-view, a similar situation in a bathroom with a child of his own. In this way, the poem operates in more than one dimension, the metaphor functions without being overwrought or reducing the literal level to melodrama.
Years later, I told
my four year old in the tub,
I'm leaving your mother, then
asked if he understood I wasn't
leaving him. He left
his wind-up scuba diver sputtering,
stepped into a towel and without a word
closed the mirror-backed door
in my dripping face.
For his jagged line breaks and snappy retorts, Weingarten has been compared to comedians like Groucho Marx and Woody Allen. His smart-assed, hard-hitting sense of humor often takes a dark turn. He has a comic's touch for punch line-like endings as he does for scathing, attention-grabbing openings.
Check out some of the zingers he begins these poems with: "The moment the children climb / into my ex-wife's car they buckle / themselves into a faraway look" (From the Temple of Longing); "I was on my back in a blizzard / of milkweed down the children were flinging / into the wind gusting like geese suddenly / changing direction" (Children in a Field); "Father pushed the double edge / through the mirror in the medicine cabinet" (The Young: the Shadow: the Farewell); "My half of the closet floor is a sideshow / of shoes" (Dear Mike); "He was nude, but for the tear gland / of bathing trunks and a profile / of Mars on his middle finger, his/belly laughing at the blue / edge of the pool I splashed / into sunlight onto the bone / white scar where the muscle over his heart / disappeared in a World War II stateside / training mission" (Moment of Vaulted Chambers).
This chapbook is notable, too, for poems like Infant Bonds of Joy and Ghost Wrestling which critics name as Weingarten's most enduring. The title poem, too, should be required reading. Here is Premature Elegy by Firelight in its entirety:
I never had the time to write
about the loneliness of waking
at 4 a.m. to the certainty of my own
early demise in my father's eye
that wrote me off like a painless
new surgery for cataracts. I never
had a minute until my brother's cat
that ate the canary grin drove all day
through a storm with a loaf of bread
and the image of the two of us
on our backs and staring at the heartbeat
of fire punishing the ceiling until daybreak
erased everything we knew our father
never let us close to. We didn't
do that. He had business
further north and I had already
invented a new father better than my own
who was just as lonely as the son
he invented to keep him company
for the last minutes of moonlight before morning.
The final quatrain is heartbreaking, the sentiment all the more moving for its unflinching honesty. The speaker has no time to lament the dead, which the two sons and the father essentially are to each other. The trope of a premature death, to which Weingarten alludes, is so intentionally tossed off we'd suspect he's overreacting if it weren't for the unavoidable fact that we know he isn't.
Marcus Cafagña is the author of two books, The Broken World (University of Illinois, 1996), a National Poetry Series selection, and Roman Fever (Invisible Cities Press, 2001). He has also published poems in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Southern Review. He lives in the Ozarks and teaches in the creative writing program at Missouri State University.