Review by Beth Browne
by Lee Rossi
Plain View Press
P.O. Box 42255
Austin, TX 78704
2011, 98pp., $14.95
Four years ago, I was once again resurrecting my sleepy writing career, perusing the latest issue of Pedestal, having met founder and editor John Amen at a local writing conference, when another familiar name swam to the surface of the screen. Huh, I thought, I used to know a man named Lee Rossi. His wife and son were in my daughter’s playgroup back in L.A. before we moved to North Carolina some six years before. I dug around and sure enough, Lee was Lee and we’d known each other on the other side of the country all those years ago.
I think he was as delighted as I was to reconnect. I had forgotten he was a poet and when we’d known each other; I hadn’t yet considered writing poetry. We kept in touch, exchanging news of the kids and finding common friends in the writing world. When he found out I was doing interviews for The Main Street Rag, he asked if I would review his latest book, Wheelchair Samurai. Now, this is a sketchy prospect. An interview is a completely different animal than a book review and although I have been on the board of the NC Poetry Society for years, I am no English major. And besides that, what if I really didn’t like the book? What would I say then?
Happily, I read the book with great pleasure. Divided into three sections, the first one, “Blood Litany,” begins with a bang. With flashing details, the first poem, “Underwood,” ends with this stunning revelation:
And when after hours of pecking and hunting,
I showed my aunt, she marveled, disarming me with praise,
afraid, perhaps, that when combined, those letters
might transcribe the molecules of the future, and I, boy
alchemist, might uncover other secrets, the sadness of adults,
how everyone betrays the child she used to be.
The section moves on at a spirited pace, with several character studies, including my personal favorite, “Yakuza In The Jacuzzi” which begins with the memorable line, “I don’t know what my sister sees in her mobster,” and continues with laugh-out-loud humor: “I’ve seen him/floating like a walrus in the giant/redwood crockpot behind their house.”
Rossi’s sensibilities are keen and his insights surprising. As a parent who used to live in Los Angeles, I appreciate the poignancy of “Elegy In an Elephant Graveyard,” a thoughtful and wistful recounting of a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits with his wife and children: “Every day, they say, another species is lost./Tonight my children will dream of beauties we’ve destroyed/to keep them alive.
In “May Day, 1975” Rossi’s evocative turns of phrase such as this:
Somewhere it was still winter,
the wind’s serrated teeth gnawing
granite and gneiss,
but here the cherry trees unfurled
their fragrant labia.
reverberate with harsher realities as the poem continues:
And then across the vast green I saw a friend.
He was drunk and depleted, a soldier
who’d emptied his clip into the jungle,
frightened by something he couldn’t see…
The final poem in the section “Underground” was one I read over and over, making more of it each time and loving it one line at a time and as a whole.
In the next section, “A Boy’s Gift for Error,” Rossi slows the pace and turns to dreamy introspection such as this from his poem “Borrowed Light”:
…I don’t care if the sky is just a bowl filled with static.
It has a job to do, clearing a space for night
so the moon can burst forth, a flower riding a stem of light…
It seems to me that Rossi is somehow apart from the rest of us, but also very much one of us. His perspective is so unique, his insights fresh, yet both somehow universal and timeless. Although we may not have experienced a spelling bee, we can relate to the crushing sense of failure of the poet in the poem by that name. Also, in “To the Teenager I Nearly Hit On Fairfax,” the cascade of feelings will be familiar to most people: the terror rising into unrestrained anger, held in check, but barely. The poems in this section swing from nature to the schoolroom to vintage cars, but always lending a keen vision and a revelation.
Rossi has a knack for bridging separate concepts and making them into a seamless whole. In “Camping on the Big Sur,” the poet muses not on the landscape, but on the “steaming liter of piss” he carries to the toilets. When it brings to mind the prisoners at Auschwitz, the reader is easily borne with poet to the desperation of the concentration camp and then just as easily to the birth of a daughter, the fluid carrying the thought without effort over the landscape of the soul and coming full circle back to the woods and the birds.
The last section, “Recipes for the Afterlife,” begins with tongue firmly in cheek in a brilliant pantoum entitled “Pantoumime.” Bringing Hollywood into the mix, it moves through several road poems before landing elsewhere in “Space Walk With Turkeys”:
Motel sex, no matter how good with your own wife,
is better with someone else’s, the ghosts
of all those horny strangers, a cheering section
of lingering sweetness, infecting the sheets.
Like many of Rossi’s poems, this one seems a kaleidoscope of visual impressions, death and destruction, guilt and gratification, ICBM’s and turkeys leading the reader on an unexpected and wholly satisfying journey. From South Texas to Japan, this section moves to surprising places, revealing an inner life well spent. Or not:
He has a boy’s gift for error
and hope. He fiddles with his glasses
as if disappointed in what he sees.
No matter how strong the prescription
he knows he will never find the necessary
quiddity. There is truth, though, in
this other glass, chalice filled
with scotch, collecting all that is gold
in the twilight into its chill self.
The sweet poignancy of this poem, titled “A Poet,” carries it to its gentle ending:
(the dead) eye him
tenderly, as if remembering his sweetness
as a child, his gentleness with pets,
the way he guarded his sister.
They are waiting for him to join them,
waiting to gather his immense and frustrated love
into the darkness pouring into the room.
Lee Rossi has poured his immense and frustrated love into the darkness of this world by way of this marvelous book. With its varied subject matter, flawless grasp of language, meter and tone, this book has something for everyone. I can hardly wait to see what he dreams up next.
Beth Browne: “Why do I love poetry? Because I could never get that damn wheelbarrow out of my head. That and the plums. Because my grandfather composed poems on his prescription pads and my father wrote limericks on cocktail napkins. Because I still have them and because I can still see the rainwater and the chickens.” (firstname.lastname@example.org)