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“COFFEE HOUSE CONFESSIONS,”
In her latest chapbook, “Coffee House Confessions,” Ellaraine Lockie convincingly disabuses us of the previously held belief that the beverage of the bards is white wine—to hear Lockie tell it, and with apologies to Dionysus, America (and the rest of the globe) runs on coffee—and poetry. So, taking a cue from this award-winning poet, I have shuffled myself off to the nearest café to draft this review. (Pass me that donut, willya?)
The woman sitting next to me in Starbucks says
Sometimes the road to creativity is paved with caffeine. While most of us grab our cappuccinos hurriedly and with a grumpy demeanor en route to the office, Lockie’s place of business is Seattle’s Best, or a coffee bar in Italy, from which vantage point she can actually stop and smell the coffee beans. In this setting, as familiar as morning, Lockie elevates the writing life to a raison d’etre, fueled by the Muse . . . and Starbucks. The result is 26 freshly brewed poems that offer intense vignettes of daily life, with a cozy and intimate (yet, somehow, stylish and elegant) feel.
Those of us who attend poetry readings on a regular basis know that there is always a long-winded Neanderthal at the open mic. Ellaraine Lockie tells us why in “Java Genetics,” the opening poem of the book, which brings us back to the oral tradition, reminding us that the impetus to sharing a few hours of poetic camaraderie has long-standing roots, and that coffee houses, in particular, provide a practical venue.
A gene seed planted by need
You can learn a lot in a coffee house, and while it would be too simplistic to say that the whole of humanity boils down to a mug of mocha, Lockie’s poems traverse the social stratum, from two lumps of sugar, to the bittersweet, down to the muddy bottom of the pot, as she observes (and is observed by) a host of souls for whom a coffee break may be the only meal of the day. And, to be sure, Lockie is on the side of the underdogs among us. You will recognize many of these patrons as the poet brings us face to face with those whom we usually don’t have time to really “see,” and those whom we intentionally shun. In “Man About Town,” Lockie zeroes in on a character reminiscent of Richard Cory, whose buoyant exterior is diametrically opposed to the bleak reality:
His stride was a study in meter
Perhaps it’s all that coffee that makes Lockie such an alert and astute chronicler of humankind, or perhaps it is her poet’s eye and genuine empathy. With a profound sense of egalitarianism, Lockie documents us all, from the luckless bums (“a mountain man or maybe Santa Claus look // Except skinny as a stage-four Jesus”) to the “stockbroker in a Silicon Valley suit,” to the irate Italian coffeemaker for whom Lockie’s order of two shots of espresso gets lost in the translation. There are also bouts of near-romance, of both the flirtatious and unrequited kind, with that ubiquitous cup of coffee in one hand and a productive pen in the other.
While studied glimpses of day-to-day existence are certainly the crux of these poems, Ellaraine Lockie also has her eye on the larger mosaic, attempting to foster commonality through chicory, earnestly opining that world peace could literally be a piece of cake:
Yet why not an international day of gratitude
All this hot beverage brouhaha brings us gently to the final lines of the last poem, at which point the marriage of poetry and coffee comes full circle, and the triumphant poet gets her just desserts by finding a modest but meaningful way of financing her numerous-cups-a-day habit.
If you plan on doing some coffee-shop hopping anytime soon, do make sure you bring along rhis charming collection. Even sans the potent potables, you will find that Lockie’s writing is as rich, satisfying—and vital—as, well, that first cup of Joe.
“RELICS OF LUST,”
As the title of the book implies, lust is the central thrust of Lynne Savitt’s big, juicy New and Selected Works, but dichotomy is her strong suit as well. In the first line of the first poem, she adamantly declares that “i am terrified of biographies,” yet, the poems themselves belie this, as she bares her body, soul, and mind in an intimate dialogue of honest and earnest confession.
Despite this proclamation, there are few myths here; instead, Savitt confronts staggering truths, and as a result, we are swept up in a tawdry tapestry of a life lived lushly, licentiously—toward a progression that is somewhat mellower, but no less arousing. Savitt’s poetic voice is like steam rising: hardcore and husky, lusty, and sweet. Her tongue-in-cheek (among other places) humor mitigates some of the rough patches, and any bitterness she harbors is tempered by a benignity of spirit, playfulness, and good cheer. The wry, Dickensian titles (“It’s Hard To Be Proud of Being Jewish When Your Only Religious Experience Was Seeing Exodus,” “If It Wasn’t For General Motors, I’d Still Be a Virgin,” and “For My Pals, Penises, Poets & Penitents Who’ve Passed In the Nineties”) are an intentional tease and wink to the reader; the breathlessness of her fragmented sentences, with words that seem to bump up against each other, echoing the frenetic content (well, who has time for grammar when you’re a poet on the move?) and her dripping hot lava/cool magma sensuality collide with whip-smart wit to make these poems much more than a lurid tragicomedy of a voluptuous vixen mired in degraded, ill-fated relationships. Savitt turns phrases as ardently as she does her desire, but beneath the motif of flesh and skin, there is a mother, a wife, a lover, an enabler, and a product of her times—an innately sexy lady with a heart of gold. Lynn Savitt wears many stripes, and only some of them are of the cougar variety.
Although the chronology of these poems contains a long bridge-span, taking us right up to the present, the tenor and landscape are firmly rooted in the Sixties. This, too, presents a hotbed of contradictions for the poet: her ideology is freewheeling, yet oddly reserved; her lifestyle has a carefree bent, yet it is laden with responsibility; her demeanor is reckless, yet she is the consummate caretaker. And the image of the syringe, so germane to the Sixties, has an altogether different connotation for Savitt, whose parental concern for a sick child is palpable, and is embedded in many of the poems.
And Savitt’s bearing may be no-holds-barred, but she is imprisoned by her devotion to a husband who is literally behind bars (although, mysteriously, she never mentions what crime he is doing time for).
But . . . let’s get back to lust for a minute. Here, again, humor saves the day for Savitt in recounting some of the more—ahem—unbridled and feral aspects of her heyday. In “Conversion” (for a Jehovah’s Witness), the scenario is hilarious and, one might say, borders on the holy:
Equally droll, but tinged with the pain of her reality, is Savitt’s letter to the mother of a younger man with whom she has had a brief liaison (Mrs. M. . . . I’m the “lady from N.Y.” your son spent four a half days with hot humid crazy hours children I’ve got two a boy and a girl who’s very ill I see you clutching your breast but wait there’s more my parents are Jewish democrats although my first husband died in Vietnam my second dodged the draft and I’m older than Robin”).
Although it is up to the reader to venture a guess as to whether the Sunday morning Jehovah’s Witness helped Savitt find faith (or whether she converted him), in “The Little Men Who’ve Been In My Life,” she has at least renounced some of the less savory ones:
The last chapters of the book represent a semi-seismic shift in age and circumstance. It is ironic that, as a wild young filly, Savitt appears world-weary (by twenty-five I’d lived//the tract life widow, mother, wife//succulent baby love, emerald knife//husband love//breathless escape with my iron will//my dependable Volkswagen), while grandmother-hood seems to have infused her with a second wind. (How fitting it is that all that youthful lust has culminated in such joyful bundles of innocence!) Letters to lovers (and their mothers) aside, the most tender poems in the book are the ones addressed to Savitt’s children and the children of her children. In “The Transport of Grandma’s Yearning Vibrator,” the title is wildly lewd, but the words are gentle:
In this regard, one could argue that the phrase relics of lust is a misnomer. True, Savitt no longer sleeps on such “busy pillows,” and she may have traded in her boatload of boys for serene walks along the beach with her grandchildren, but she is no less a hot commodity for that. The moral of this story is that, as Lynne Savitt herself would say, lust comes in many flavors—and maturity, wisdom, and love of family have ultimately become, for this poet, the greatest aphrodisiacs of all.