Review by James Benton

by David James

March Street Press
3413 Wilshire
Greensboro, NC 27408
ISBN 1-59661-105-7
2009, 60 pp., $15.00

Imagine those famous paintings of dogs playing poker. Now imagine the kind of person who hangs those paintings on the wall of his man-cave, not because he thinks of them as art, but because they are so insipid they make him laugh like a fourth-grader at a fart joke. Meet David James in She Dances Like Mussolini. From the title forward, James reminds us in plain language that winking at the silly often gets us through the dire.

What of the title poem? Using crisp, finely seen details, the poem’s speaker lets us in on a blind date that goes not as badly as one might think. It opens with a few economical lines that capture the essence of the scene like a photograph:

Short & stout
her hair unable to fly loose
from her head
my blind date marches across the dance floor,
arms jerking

The dancer bashes around the room, fist-pumping at the ceiling, and generally flailing in a bizarre parody of dance. But after a while, the rest of the room has fallen in sync with her manic energy, “marching in rows, everyone ordering Chianti.” Past embarrassment or even wonder, the speaker too, finally, succumbs to this woman’s fierce abandon, confessing, “God knows I’m sick: / I dance back.”

This opening sets the tone for the remainder of the book. Check out these titles: “The Politics of an Idiot,” “Dear Feet,” “The Hangover of Love,” “The New Life Soup Game,” “Last Thing a Man Would Ever Say.” Don’t they portend the literary equivalent of a velvet Elvis? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the simple diction of the poems, their clear and direct address toward their subjects at first make many of them sound underdeveloped. On the other hand, the humor and skewed vantage point of the poems reveals a writer in control of both content and craft, often producing surprisingly humane results.

A poem like “The Other Side of the Coin” is a good example. The poem, a strange, satirical look at gender politics, is best understood in the context of its epigraph from Andrea Dworkin: “Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” In response, the speaker of the poem throws himself at his wife with tenderness expressed in terms of contempt thereby exposing the Dworkin comment as blather.

As good as this volume is, it is also somewhat uneven. A poem like “The Romantic,” seeks to extol the virtues of plain women over the exotic. “I am looking for the dumpy one,” the speaker says, but as egalitarian as he wants to be, in the end he remains merely lecherous, concluding unconvincingly that

I can only imagine
what’s underneath
that dress

Some of the poems would be improved by the omission of their final prosaic commentaries. For example, “If Men Ran the World,” begins as though it is a satirical swipe at men for whom “Dogs Playing Poker” remains high art. Its tone is lighthearted, self-deprecating, and the male reader laughs with guilty self-recognition while the female reader nods knowingly with recognitions of her own.

“When your girlfriend needed to talk to you during the game, she’d appear in a little box in the corner of the TV screen during a time out,”

reads the unattributed epigraph, and the poem that follows is a witty realization of this man-cave fantasy. But in the final stanza, the tone turns a little mean:

The fact is if men really ran the world,
Virtually all interaction with women
would be like this—one click
& she’s in a little box in the corner of the TV,
another click, she brings in ribs & beer,
click, she’s naked,
click, click, she’s gone.

Ouch. This stinging rebuke undercuts the far more successful poem that precedes it. Without these final lines, the poem remains a kind-hearted jab at men’s more slovenly tendencies; because these tendencies are constrained by the conditional “if”of the title, they remain forgivable. With these lines, those tendencies assert themselves and become irredeemable.

Yet meanness in a poem, as Tony Hoagland points out, can be a virtue when handled properly. Take for example “For Open Mic Readers,” an apostrophe to poets-in-training in need of, well, more training. Anyone who has been to a poetry reading with an open mic will understand the withering snarl directed at “neophyte’ poets confident in work “where you rhyme ‘in-ya’ with ‘zinnia.’” We’ve all been there, we all know the feeling, but we have mostly been trained not to speak these thoughts out loud. James manages to break free of the social niceties of polite but false praise and say what we all would say…if only. The final lines sum it up nicely:

You have every right in the world
to be here

And we have every right
to leave.

Thank you David James for the courage to be snarky and intemperate on our behalf.

Below the humorous surface of these poems lies a serious engagement with serious matter. Poems that at first seem to be about the minor irritants of daily life turn out on deeper inspection to address weighty themes like the indignities of advancing age or the difficulties of sustaining one’s public persona while the private one gnashes at the seams to bust out. “Only So Much No” is not really about a poet whining over rejection slips so much as it is about maintaining one’s sense of dignity and self worth in general. “Dear Memory,” another apostrophe, this time to an aging man’s unfaithful recall, confronts the unavoidable sense of loss we experience as we contemplate our mortality. And there are many other fine examples in this collection that whistles past the graveyard for us.

Plain spoken and unambiguous, the volume reaches its peak in the touching final poem, “I’ll Take Your Face.” While the title suggests another lighthearted vignette, this expectation is pleasantly subverted, and instead of jokes, the reader is treated to a tender and uniquely conceived love song. The speaker here, at first, is so lost in the frenzy of his emotions that he fails to notice, or to care, about the dead metaphors sputtering from his lips. Following a stanza break, the speaker manages to collect his wits and in a wonderful moment of selflessness, offers his imperfect soul as fertile ground in which his lover’s virtues might

take root & blossom
over every inch of flesh,
petals blooming everywhere
until I’m beautiful enough
for you.

It is a beautiful turn, and a beautiful way to close a worthy collection.

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