Joe Farley / Review
A Plan in Case of Morning, by Phill Provance
Vine Leaves Press, 2020. 90 pages.
The more I read Phill Provance’s poetry, the more I am impressed. The more times I read this collection the more I liked the poems. This is the first full length collection of poetry from Provance, who holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Provance has worked variously as a teacher, tutor, bartender, journalist, editor, comic strip writer, entrepreneur, programmer, historian, and landlord besides being a poet, book reviewer and essayist. I suspect that, given a dozen years, he will have added a dozen more hats and added many more publications to his resume. Provance’s other major publications are A Brief History of Woodbridge, New Jersey (The History Press 2019) – the semiofficial biography of a town I may have actually driven through; and a poetry chapbook The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky (Cy Gist Press 2010).
Provance is from Appalachia. He was born in a small town in western Pennsylvania. He describes his parents as “a Kirby salesman and a welfare caseworker who divorced when he was four.” He spent part of his youth living in a trailer on his grandparents’ farm. He grew up surrounded by rural poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. It is a background he calls “stereotypes of Appalachia.” But Provance is far from a stereotype. He is an erudite and careful artist. His writing gets into your brain and stays there.
There are many poems in A Plan in Case of Morning that are worthy of note such as “How It Goes,” “Triangle”, “Outside Odessa”, “The Stenographer’s Union”, “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”, ‘Elegy” and “Tiny Dancer.” But, for purposes of this review I will focus on four poems in the book.
“Chicago Tableau” presents a scene that could almost be called Victorian or vaguely romantic. This, however, is interrupted by a “flash of white light” when “a flood/ of feet and arms washed down/ Wabash…," sending pieces of broken mannequins past the speaker. The poem is dedicated to the poet Donald Revell, perhaps in act of whimsy. Revell is a major proponent of noun-only poetry, an approach that Provance does not seem to embrace. Whimsy or not, the imagery is jarring; the language precise.
for D. Revell
It started with an umbrella.
Striped pink and green with
a mangled frame, ribs missing,
shaft bent, it lay on a piano
beside a top and yo-yo.
It started as a man dressed
in pinstriped pants, white shirt,
red bowtie and suspenders
frowned, his mussed, blond bangs
matted to his forehead.
It started with a woman,
the fine curls on the back of her neck
as it craned over the keyboard
and her slender hands poised over
the keys, as if debating
which to depress.
It started with the piano’s
walnut sheen – and a vase with
crisp irises, the yo-yo and the blouse
and a stiff, gray cat by the pedals
all seemed to gasp in unison.
But it started like this
and ended like this.
For then there was a flash of white light
at the crosswalk, and a flood
of feet and arms washed down
Wabash, bowling me away,
and still, to this hour, I have no clue
what those mannequins were doing.
I asked Provance about the poem. He told me the poem is about mannequins in a Chicago department store and boutique displays. Provance says: “These can get bizarre as the decorators often treat them as a competitive art form-- the more attention attracted by their scenes the more passersby stop, inspect, perhaps shop; the only rule I can gather from seeing a few weird ones is the mannequins must be wearing the clothes the store is selling. They often tell a story through static subtext. These window-display tableaux can get pretty surreal. The one I write about is not an actual one but a composite of things I've seen to allow the scene to be about an argument between lovers that is true enough to what one might see in Chicago shop-display art.”
In “Chicago Tableau” you have the mannequins in the stores and the flood of mannequins or mannequin-like pedestrians on the sidewalks, creating the ecstatic experience of the poet. We are all mannequins. I tend to agree. Especially during the work week. It is an extraordinary poem.
The poem “Gein” is inspired by Edward Theodore Gein, the Butcher of Plainfield (1906 – 1984) – the true life serial killer muse for Psycho.
“We discussed every murder we heard about.
Eddie explained the mistakes the murderer made.”
- Adeline Watkins, girlfriend (Life, Dec. 2, 1957)
Before the terror of Plainfield
skinned dozens to fashion his lampshades,
his wastebaskets, seat covers and cereal bowls,
his window shades and bedposts -
not to mention the unspeakable
leggings, corset and mask -
a low horizon must have terrorized his heart.
For who can believe otherwise?
Who can believe one winter,
with the snow crests
hard and sharp as razors
over the barbwire
dividing the fields’ mottled plots
his child’s eyes didn’t scan
for the sear of sun
on summer grass.
If it were Christmas, 1913, who wouldn’t understand?
If he liked to split his hands on barbwire?
Or if, once that last limp cow
had starved, been shot, he liked
to strip away his gloves and scarf
and stuff his forearms in the ice
till they went numb?
All that was left from his father’s drinking
was the tanning shed out back, was his mother
warning, Don’t trust no Smith’s hooch,
as she showed him how to skin a badger live
to make the hats they sold by Goult’s
and he watched his dad’s insurance flyers
dissolve into brown pulp
in the tannin vats.
All that was left, besides his mother,
and brother, was the dog, Jeremiah,
soft yellow pup,
only one to watch him
as he tottered through the knee-high drifts,
last gift his father got him
before they shut the grocery up
and the old man ran off.
And, anyhow, who wouldn’t understand?
If on Christmas he cried over such
a big roast, if a full belly became a name
for love, and it felt so soft and warm
pulling that yellow fur cap
over his wind-chapped ears?
I couldn’t find all these gruesome tidbits in biographical information I read about Gein, but they sound weird enough to be true. I did read that Gein’s father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned his wife and children, and that Gein’s mother was also abusive. Gein is steered towards his grisly art by childhood horrors. The poet finds sympathy. It is easy to understand why.
In “My Old Man," Provance writes about his own father. We see his father as a man with his own damage. The poet finds his father “planted on his couch, the upholstery full/ of burn holes, him sucking on tin foil, ‘getting the good cocaine out’...”
I asked Provance about “Gein” and asked if “My Old Man” somehow related to the poem. Provance responded:
“ The poem about Ed Gein is a confrontation of masculine evil and how it is often engendered...and supported … by feminine evil. This man...was not evil on his own: his mother's well-documented abuse when he was still just an otherwise sweet little boy...and... his girlfriend's ridiculously blind-eye enabling ….were complicit...It is, in short, a sympathy for the devil poem, a sympathy for the same devil in all men: the lack of our mothers' love ….often contributes to our evil. ...Confronting this...is one way of confronting the monster within and defeating it with love and empathy. My Old Man is a counterpoint. 'The Devil in Me is the Devil in You,' as Billy Corgan put it." The father figure visits the hero to help him in his battle against great evil, and while the father himself may be a monster in some way, his act of love for the hero counterbalances his evil with care and love. It is the projected self-pity with which the speaker first battles Gein/Death that proves ineffective. It is the ego negation he learns from visiting the ghost/memory of the father that allows him to confront death in all its arbitrary glory in "Elegy" and defeat it in "Tiny Rider"...” (“Elegy” and “Tiny Rider” are two other poems in the book.)
Provance’s “father” is not perfect, but he’s not a monster. In “The Poem Is,” Provance discusses his parents divorcing when he was young. He writes of his father crying, packing his belongings and moving out. There’s a warm spot left in his mother’s bed after his father was gone, a place where the young poet would sometimes sleep. The feelings of disconnectedness are alleviated by art. Provance discovers poetry: “...I first fell into myself/ in second grade, the day/ Mrs. Mann had us/ write poems.../when nothing’s left, /the poem remains.” I cannot help but think the poet could have turned out much worse if not for poetry. That could be said about many poets. There’s the horror we conceal and that which we reveal. Language and metaphor help with healing or at least provide armor against the pain. Read this book. Several times. It is worth it. Form your own opinions. It will give you much to contemplate.