Book Review

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Cindy Hochman

by Ellaraine Lockie
(Silver Birch Press, 2013)
ISBN # 9780615727677
(43 pages, $10 plus postage)

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
“I wish I were as dedicated to something
as you to whatever you do here every day”
Little does she know I’m eating her alive
Dissecting her and spitting her out on paper
That I’m bulimic about everything
Surrounding me in any public place . . .

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
when primal people had no written words
So gathered around fires
to transfer stories face to face
And poetry sprouted out of rhymes
that stuck in slippery memories
A gene seed germinating
over generational turfs
Wrapping resolve around chromosomes
that pulled poets too poor
for heated rooms toward coffee houses
Where they huddled around brick hearths
Passed their poems on with quill pens
and recited them to kindred spirits

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
And any female looking his way
from the Leaf and Bean
as he crossed the street
would become an immediate student

Five sips of coffee later I look up
And he’s ransacking
the four trash cans out front
Toasting other people’s excess
with paper cups

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:

From “Blessings”:

Yet why not an international day of gratitude
A day away from differences, right here now
Push tables together, carve up a pumpkin cake
Dress the morning in coffees from other countries
and celebration of the one we’re in
Hold hands in a blessing that bars
bloodshed, politics and religion
Cheerio, ohayo, salam, dankbar

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.

Cindy Hochman

by Lynne Savitt
(NYQ Books, 2014)
ISBN # 978-1-935520-82-5

           i am a pacifist who can spit bullets
            rip a man’s heart at ten paces
           shake the blood off my lace cuffs
           & open the fly of the next
           waiting man with my tongue
                      —Lynne Savitt, “Love In the Late Sixties”

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.

i am terrified of biographies

born in australia in the emerald-studded
pouch of a sable-coated kangaroo
my right eye is a perfect star sapphire . . .

I am in favor of myths.

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.

On The Hospitalization Of My Daughter For Diabetes

all my plans
for covering our nipples
with forest leaves
digging our toes into plush cream
carpet of a san francisco apartment
hiding out with donald duck for weeks
at disneyland

all my plans
for the nuclear holocaust
survival of the strongest
and you will need your insulin

i fill the syringe
i rub your perfect thigh with alcohol
oh, my perfect
oh, my plans
oh, my daughter . . .

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).

Six Things To Know If You Love a Convict

Never call him a convict

No one is interested in doing a remake
of Romeo & Juliet in chains & middle age

Five hundred letters a year only keep
you warm if you burn them

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:

they always come when you’re in the tub
or brownie batter or mickey spillane story
and this one had such religious blue eyes
in his telling of the imminent end that
i began to long for a theocracy and in
this longing fell to my knees . . .

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”).

Cindy Hochman...Cont...

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 three years
i have lost my interest
in little men.

a former champion of
the short & alcoholic,
i no longer crusade
for the equal opportunity
for the unequal.

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:

she lives in places her pillows cannot take her
grandbabies will widen their peacock-blue eyes
when she tells them about her colorful past
is a lavender balloon in the hand of a toddler

pink pinwheels sailing up to heaven’s memory
filling your dreams like chocolate kisses & ether
this is a coupon to a catalog of sex toys & films,
a love note, a legacy from your maternal grandma
speaking from experience & memory’s carnival

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.