by W.S. Di Piero
McSweeney’s, 63 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
Giacomo Leopardi speaks of two essential kinds of imagination: strong and promiscuous. The first is “weighty, impassioned, melancholic, with deep emotion and passion, all fraught with life hugely suffered.” The second is “playful, light, fleet, inconstant in love, high spirited.”
The W.S. Di Piero of The Dog Star, the one I first encountered as a reader, is of the strong variety, as in his depiction of a somber Whitman attending injured soldiers and offering introspection on a Civil War battlefield in “Walt, the Wounded.”
A small fire still burns in the nursery.
Rice and molasses simmer on the stove.
Children will have to learn to ask for less,
less from the elephant dawn that chilled
across the heights where Lee held his ground.
Or there is the dark homage “To My Old City”: “diesel fume and bloodspoor streaked / on wet streets, and cars biting evening papers / from the black newsstand.” In it, memory figures as corrosive.
Surely all poets offer changes in mood, even within a single book, but underlying shifts in temperament happen over time, if at all. And with the appearance of Tombo, I may observe, without being accused of vicious gossip, that Di Piero The Strong has turned promiscuous.
Don’t mistake my meaning. There remain the tough, spiky, backward-swinging branches in mortal danger of getting snapped off by the next high wind. The wary sentinel of inconstancy still sits at his post, if a bit more distracted playing gin rummy with himself, chuckling at his last clever play.
But this Di Piero, with all his technical mastery, and the sharp, still-skeptical mind of a poet who has lived in all the stages of life, comes forth with the terror and wonder of a child.
In the nakedly-named “The Heart,” a persona of plenitude gets revealed,
The estero swells
with winter rain.
We ran toward
not away from
stress and trouble.
We want to get closer
to the rising waters,
wait and watch them
flush from and back to
the terrifying ocean.
Nothing comes from
comes from everything.
Through a simple double negative, Adam, he who names, walks straight back into Paradise,
I can’t not keep coming back
to this place that’s not a place,
its pepper trees, olive, lilac,
narcissus, jasmine, here with me
and mock orange and eucalyptus
and cypress flat-topped by sea wind.
In “Hub Cap: An Essay on Poetry,” the painful lesson of the difficulty of making art takes the form of an elegant rap about the young cat who dares jam jazz with the elders in Prospect Park, and comes up short. Yet in terms of tone, this dolor gets held in the safety of the poet’s palm.
The kid punches mouthpiece to embouchure
to crave a sound that blends the dirt and air
and treetops the air washes through.
He plays like Freddie Hubbard, badly,
he flubs the boiled plump sound he’s pining for,
he misses time, cracks, winces at clams.
Tombo at times waxes downright giddy, as in the title poem: “the fickle messy wash of speech and flowers;” “the slurpee glaze upon the freezer case;” all this among transcendent themes and full-bore epiphany.
But much on display is Di Piero’s sense of humor; the speaker of the poem sits in a Safeway aisle before a dubious yet possibly authentic guru telling of “Master Tombo, / lord and creator, whose round energy / lives in us surrounds us surrounds our milk / our butter our eggs.” In these latter days of farm to table, deliverance is as likely to come from the dairy case as from the chapel. The timbre is soft, meant to win us over to Tombo’s cult of the earth, his spirit of gospel.
Even at its most sober, the book never strays into melancholy. Rather, as in “Bruised Fruit,” contemplating the imperfection inherent in art-making leads to moments of intense clarity in retrospect.
And blistered legal pads from thirty years ago,
broken-off lines, my homely morose graffiti, contrite,
disfigured, quaintly ringed by morning coffee.
The poet seems not austere, but indulgent of the younger, tormented version of himself. He abides as the mature soul, generous, giving, not prone to mockery, who redacts the homely morose graffiti of yesteryear into an almost calligraphic elegance, void of pity. This tender spirit of Tombo is what, above all, earns this collection the title of promiscuous.
The more impish side of Di Piero finds its place in these pages. For me, the greatest of many fine poems was the humorously grotesque, disgusting “The Black Paintings: The Mouth.”
The kisser, the drooler, the sucker,
the crooked overbite
sexing an upper lip,
puce ulcers puffing
a lower lip and cracked
tablature of teeth.
I never thought I’d use a word like glee to describe one of this poet’s creations, but ecstasy is too formal. So let “the anemone’s raunchy / come-to-me maw” have the final word, in among these leaves of crass beauty, this barbaric burp of the divine.
Johnny Payne is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. His most recent book of poetry is Vassal. Forthcoming is the poetry collection Heaven of Ashes, from Mouthfeel Press.