02 July 2009

Your Whole Life by Douglas Goetsch

Your Whole Life Poems by Douglas Goetsch Slipstream, 2007 Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt I read the author bios last. I do this not to keep the list of awards, fellowships, grants, and publication from placing its heavy thumb on the scales of my judgment, but rather to keep the inevitable irritation at bay when I discover yet again that even small “independent” presses take no risks. Alas, it’s no revelation that Douglas Goetsch has published just about everywhere a poet would like to be read. Or that he has at least two full-length books and three chapbooks already in print. And here is another. So, Goetsch knows how to hold a reader’s interest. And he catches a scene, a character, and a time with some precision. Yet this collection is uneven. Was it perhaps compiled from a couple batches of older and newer poems loosely connected by reminiscence? Near the middle of the book we find ourselves in the horse latitudes—Vacuuming, Haiku, Bill, and Recess, each strikes its predictable, flat, prosey notes without force. Even in otherwise successful poems like, Black People Can’t Swim where Goetsch sets the hook with, “When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y/ she said, ‘Oh, black people can’t swim,” he suddenly lets us off by telling too much, “We were all toddlers, or unborn, when Martin dreamed/of little black children and little white children/ going to school arm in arm.” Still there’s mostly good stuff in Your Whole Life, though not great stuff. For one thing, Goetsch comes up with some interesting titles and keeps up the arresting starts: “Coming home to a destroyed mailbox/ you experience a recognition problem/ like hearing your name called in a foreign city/” (You’ve Never Won Anything), or “My best friend gave me a girl.” (Delia). Another strength is Goetsch’s focus on thoughts, feeling, and moments that deliver that private internal flick of the whip when they come (reluctantly) to mind. As a not-too-biting instance, a poem about spending Christmas with a friend’s family, A Guest for Christmas, gives us that ol’ awkward holiday feeling when having arrived without a gift you find, “… there was one for you/ an emergency gift, not too expensive/ for either gender, such as a journal/or photo frame, and it shamed you/ to receive it…” Gone, one of the stronger poems, begins, “It’s easy to want someone dead./ Take this guy..” Goetsch ironically fumes, the impotent everyman behind the benignly blank face: …or the dickhead flicking a lit cigarette from his car to the sidewalk. Something tells me the woman tossing chicken bones under the bus seat, now licking her fingers, is of no use to the world. Doubtless if they were weeping in confessionals over their small though highly revealing offenses, or scribbling apologies in journals, I’d feel differently… In Poems You’re Not Allowed to Write, Sirens, New York City, and The Kingdom, Goetsch gives us a rough blank verse rhythm, an easy and believable voice, and a complex range of emotion—funny, angry, thoughtful. In these poems and others, the crisp detail works to show us specific people and places in a fine and familiar voice capturing the common awkward moment, the social lie, and the secret unwilling disappointment in poems that are skilled but not too ambitious or technically showy.