Review by James E. Allman
TONY GLOEGGLER GREATEST HITS 1984 – 2009
by Tony Gloeggler
Pudding House Publishing
81 Shadymere Lane
Columbus, OH 43213
2009, 32 pp., $12.00
Plain and simple, “1969.” I knew nothing of Tony Gloeggler except that solitary poem, which I first read on Rattle’s blog a few months back. I suppose Greatest Hits was an inevitable first purchase, then; just as knowing nothing of Dave Brubeck when I was 16 obliged me to buy a 2-disc greatest hits of the jazz master. This was before I knew that Darktown Strutter’s Ball was never supposed to follow Take Five, or, even, anything of the magic of the famed Brubeck/Desmond chemistry that I now hold in holy awe. Greatest hits, I believe, are about impatience or ignorance. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I really wanted to buy a Brubeck album that day, thumbing through stacks at the music store but perplexed—Time, Time Out, Time Further Out, Time Way Way Out, Time In, Time Changes—but I left with Dave Brubeck The Legacy Jazz Collection instead, a 28 song compilation of his “mainstays” that can be skipped if you are a longtime collector, but a good introduction, otherwise. Back to Tony Gloeggler Greatest Hits 1984 – 2009.
Back to 1969, which begins the chapbook and my interest in the author—is like a radio single that ends with a quick trip to Tower Records, in that way. Book in hand, I cracked the book open to read a short introduction by the poet, then quickly moved on to the first poem whose title is seemingly as nostalgic as all those radio-hits, albums, compact discs, brick-and-mortar-record-stores and retrospectives I remember. Rife nostalgia is an overall theme of the Greatest Hits series by Pudding House, and this poem—which speaks of Little-League baseball, first kisses & cigarettes, World Series games, Communion and Mustangs—is an appropriate opening. The poem seems, on the surface, to be about loss & death and a family’s grief & coping, though its theme is actually something quite different. In the poet’s introduction to the chapbook, Gloeggler says, “While I have two younger brothers, none of them have died in Viet Nam or anywhere else. Sometimes that fact has surprised, disappointed and pissed people off.” Maybe it doesn’t piss me off because the war in Viet Nam is not a direct memory of mine, as I wasn’t alive during that era. Nevertheless, the indirect memory of it is part of my psyche: 58,272 names carved on polished black granite, flag-draped caskets, Nixon and Johnson speeches replayed on PBS specials, F4 phantoms & Huey helicopters taking off and landing ad infinitum on TV, and Robert Duval proclaiming, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Rife nostalgia, or not even nostalgia, or nothing but nostalgia—Gloeggler admits it is a fabrication, though brought on by the symbols and liturgies of war that have affected him much as they affect me, as we are all affected by them. The poem shook me the first time I read it; it still shakes me, the way Johnny’s Mustang with his father sitting in it revving the engine shook “every tool hanging in the garage”. A host of car songs comes to mind, including Marc Cohn’s Silver Thunderbird: “Me I wanna go down/ in a silver Thunderbird…”
One thread connecting the poems in this collection is loss. Well, loss and something gristly. Greatest Hits is full of vulgarity and sex and masturbation and one very descriptive account of an abortion that made me cringe, uncomfortably. Despite that, “Scraping” is a good poem, packed with self-doubt, inner turmoil and rage, and, yes, the ability to turn my stomach. Quite good because I get the genuine sense that my discomfort in reading it is Gloeggler’s own—that here
we have honesty that hurts and a subconscious that is haunted. He’s unsettled, but at the time he “was young and dumb/and in love, and would have done anything/for her.” Like the Antlers’ song “Bear”: “We’re too old/We’re not old, old at all…We’ll be blind and dumb until we fall asleep.” Gloegger continues, “She wasn’t ready to be a mother.”
[And] I was happier to stay boyfriend and girlfriend, sit in the waiting room and turn pages in magazines while the doctor sucked
and scraped her insides clean.
The Antlers sing on as if in echo,
We’re not scared of making caves
Or finding food for him to eat
We’re terrified of one another
And terrified of what that means
But we’ll make only quick decisions
And you’ll just keep me in the waiting room.
It would be easy enough to question the morality of it all and the author’s complicity, but he appears, like Duvall’s character in Get Low (is this for real? 2 Duvall references in one article?), to have already passed judgment on himself. He lives with profound guilt for which being “young and dumb” isn’t enough of an excuse. “I want to know what it will take to stop/that god damn shovel from scraping the ground again.” It isn’t the shovel he hears. And there’s all the cynicism to remind him, and us, that there are no simple solutions. What if the lost “daughter or son” had grown up? Would he and the girl have worked harder to stay together, or as likely stayed together and “hurt each other even deeper”? Which takes us back to “Bear”: “When we get home we’re bigger strangers than we’ve ever been before/You sit in front of snowy television, suitcase on the floor.” Gloeggler wrestles candidly, and we shouldn’t intervene to add to or detract from it. We can instead share in the pain of his grief-stricken spirit; we can sing along.
There are a few truly heart felt moments, though no less gritty. Take “The Last Good Thing” or “Goodbye.” These moments are transcendent breaks in a compilation dominated by love defined by first-flushes of passion and sex. Here, Gloeggler is at his best, as he sutures frankness to vulnerability. In “The Last Good Thing” we see a father and son in an intimately sad space. A man once strong and looked upon “like he’s some God”, now needing to be undressed and held in the shower by his son and “soaped under his arms, between/his legs.” The son’s response:
…I tried not to cry
when he said he could stay
like this forever, stay
until he died, until
the hot water got cold.
And, as if in a role-reversal, the narrator in “Goodbye” is the father-like figure, still as caring as he was when a son—now doting on the autistic child of a lover. We know Joshua as the narrator picks him up from school for the last time, as we discover that the relationship which brought the two together has fallen apart, as she is moving with Joshua to Vermont. He wonders:
if he remembers that I moved
down the block, kept visiting him
while everyone I know told me
to let go and move on,
that I didn’t owe him a thing,
and no one seemed to accept
or understand I love Joshua,
that the way he will never fit
in the world reminds me of me
and I wish he was my son,
my eight year old boy.
My, my, mine.
In his introduction, Gloeggler tells us, “I still can’t get through it out loud without my heart starting to move differently, my voice catching and getting shaky.” It is my favorite poem in the compilation. It deserves a rest afterward like a moment of silence just like the silence necessary after the part in Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman where Sergeant Joe pulls over and watches his brother Frank’s fleeing “taillights disappear” into Canada all the while reflecting on how “nothin’ feels better than blood on blood” and when a “man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.”
A humorous respite is required after something so heavy: something like a Cake song, something like “Stickshifts and Safetybelts.” “One Hit Wonder” and “Mid Life Poetry Crises” will do. In the former, Gloeggler tells us “no one remembers anyone for anything good” and the children of washed up rockers “cover their ears and say ‘Oh Dad no, not again?’” every time fingers are drummed to ancient rock standards. Bleak? Perhaps, but comical, as he ends the poem with “five fat bald guys…hurrying home from work/to meet in somebody’s garage…plugging in amps, picking up drumsticks,/strapping on the bass and guitar…nod” then count off “‘One.’ ‘Two.’ ‘Three.’ ‘Four.’” The poem ends there; how perfect! In “Mid Life Poetry Crises,” Gloeggler rants:
I’m tired of song titles,
retards, autistic kids,
old and new girlfriends,
battered valentines, baseball
metaphors, not getting
laid, subway stations,
working class families,
drunk drivers, dead fathers…
Aren’t these the very things he writes about? I believe a chortle is required. And he goes on “I want to open my mail/to submission requests/from the New Yorker and Poetry…Sell more books/than Billy Collins. And when he dies, the poet continues, “bored, tortured school kids will be forced to recite my poems during National Poetry Month.” Two chortles in one poem!? What fun.
The one thing I struggle with in this book is the vulgarity. It initially turned me off. I was told once by a comedian that vulgarity gets the easy laugh; what is challenging and artful in comedy is eliciting laughter without the crutch of the “F” bomb or crudeness. That has stuck with me. I’m no prude; vulgar words don’t register to my ears in movies or music, but in poetry I demand more. I’ve read that poetry is an attempt to constantly rejuvenate the language—to make it young and virile and exciting. As a poet I scoff at clichés and overused idioms. They mark an inferior poet. What are four-letter words but overused idioms? Yes, I’ve read poems in which vulgarity makes sense (the rules aren’t cut-and-dry here), but I believe it is the rarer instance. Of the 12 poems in the Greatest Hits collection, over half have swearwords or flat-out crude or offensive diction. It doesn’t seem judicious enough to me. Tony Gloeggler is talented, at times brilliant. I expect these tricks, I suppose, but from a mediocre poet, which Gloeggler is not. Of course, if I were him, I’d quote Duvall from True Grit (1969) at me, “I need a good judge!” Or better still, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”
I can’t say that I’ve ever liked a greatest hits collection straight through. It’s been pieced together and is meant to be an overview of a career, rather than a stand-alone body of work. It’s like an amuse bouche at a fine restaurant, meant for whetting an appetite as opposed to satisfying it. Perhaps it is a sound check. Either way, after digesting a best-of album the next right step is a return trip to the record shop to hunt for the tracks you “dug,” only this time on an honest-to-god full-length record. Applying that maxim here, there are four such poems I’d look for: “1969,” “The Last Good Thing,” “Scraping” and “Goodbye.” They were enough to keep me interested in Tony Gloeggler. The chapbook might not be for everyone. It is gristly and bawdy, but so, too, is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. My advice comes from Duvall (by this point it’s too late to quote anyone else) as Felix Bush in Get Low: “If you don’t listen, you can’t hear nothing.” And some of Gloeggler’s work is music worth hearing.
James E. Allman, Jr.’s credentials—degrees in biology and business—qualify him for an altogether different trade. However, he easily tires of the dissected and austerely economized. He is a dabbler with an expensive photography-habit and a poetry-dependency. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010, his work appears, or is forthcoming, in The Los Angeles Review, decomP, Anemone Sidecar and Splash of Red, amongst others.