Book Review

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Linda Lerner

Francis Shoots Pool At Chubb's Bar
by Al Ortolani
Spartan Press
1800 W. 39th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111
Trade Paperback, 53pp. $10.00
(the book can be purchased on Amazon. & at Prospero's books, 1800 W 39th St. Kansas City, MO 64111)

We've all met Saint Francis and his gang of holy men who romp through the pages of Al Ortolani's collection in our own lives, among our friends and family. And, that is the point of this collection. It becomes most apparent in its final two poems in which the poet invokes his father, as Saint Francis, whose name, as noted from the dedication, is Alfred Francis. It is also why, with only the most basic knowledge of Saint Francis, and none of the various saints or brothers mentioned (or even know if they refer to actual ones) I felt capable of reviewing, Francis shoots Pool...a collection whose first poem immediately drew me in.

It is Thursday morning; Lazarus can't find his car keys, and needs to get to Jesus's meeting with Caiaphas on time. Punctuality is vital for his prophecies to be taken seriously. This is followed by Francis going to buy a leather jacket, and mistaken by strangers for Brad Pitt who asks for his autograph. Later we see him shooting pool at Chubb's bar (titled poem) "Have you tried the chili? He asks. It's to die for." That sets the tone and mood of this collection.

Most of the poems are written in the third person, with the exception of the final four, and in three line stanzas. The language is not meant to call attention to itself, and looks deceptively simple. Contemporary slang is sometimes used securing Saint Francis and the brothers, in our world, least we should forget.

A teen age Jesus is asked by his mother, busy cooking fish, if he's "making plans for tonight / with that Magdalene girl" whom he replies, is "cute" but that they're better off being friends. He also has other plans: "I'm hanging with Lazarus tonight. / He's been in a dark place since Passover."

There's Francis with Clare riding on a Tandem bicycle; in another poem Clare has the Messiah to dinner with her best china set out. When she asks him to say grace, he points to "His mouthful / of mashed potatoes" an unacknowledged response to the question posed in, "Satori in a Village in Old Mexico:" "You ask me if I can smell the prayer in cooking / in the smoke of the sidewalk enchiladas, / grilled chicken, onions on charcoal."

Ortolani's point is most directly brought out in the first stanza of " Francis Kisses a Leper:" God is the orphan of the universe. / We put him on a shelf, isolated," and is compared to an old movie which we watch, "when the mood / for popcorn strikes us."

We find the various brothers among the sick and homeless with their "cardboard boxes and scraps of blue tarp;" Brother Giles handing out walnuts to the "poor on the road who follow him;" Brother Juniper is stealing bells from a church to give to a woman begging for bus fare. "Silver is better pawned" he says, and confesses everything to the cop when he's caught. The cop, who shouted so loud, his voice was "injured" is brought some soup, later that night by Brother Juniper to " calm / the wolf in (his) throat."

"You do your part to look the fool," the author says of him in an earlier poem, who is later seen naked after he's given his clothes away. After an officer puts a blanket over his shoulders we see how much of a fool he really is, who's already "planning to lose it." Like Shakespeare's fools, he plays his part well.

The word fool is both used and implied several times in this collection, as is the word naked. In responding to an e-mail from Brother Ruffino, who asks, "Must we preach naked again" Francis says, "Let's avoid clichés...No cardboard signs...Let penance be subtle." In another poem, "He doesn't fear / the fundamentalists-- /, says "Our demon / breeds myopia " and "it's all just slick talk..."

Saint Francis and the brothers are right here in our midst; they are not found among those mouthing prayers mechanically, or sprouting religious clichés. Stripped down naked of all formalities, sometimes acting like fools, they often go unrecognized.

In the final two poems, the author speaks directly of his father, whom he dreams of as Lazarus. Stricken with cancer, he has managed to extend his life for months. "The grief keeps recycling" from one predictable dream to another. In the second poem, "After Hard TimesÉ."his father thinks of himself as Lazarus, "risen / but not quite alive." He has driven all night through Kansas, unable to get any rest. He expects any moment to see the sun drop "a single rope" down for him to catch.

"Our message needs a new metaphor" the poet writes; with this collection Al Ortolani has given us one, has opened our eyes to see those we think of as biblical or holy are very much alive breathing the same air as us.

Waiting Among Hyacinths
Painting © by Corina T. v. M.
Poem © by Gerry de Būrca