04 August 2009

Postcards from P-Town by Steven Riel

Postcard from P-Town By Steven Riel
Seven Kitchens Press, 2009 Robin Becker Chapbook Series $7.00 

Reviewed by Laurie Rosenblatt

These days conflicts of interest entangle us at every turn. So in the interest of full disclosure: Robin Becker was, one summer, my teacher…in P-town (which I love). However, I do not know Steven Riel (though after reading his chapbook I wish I did). “Postcards from P-town,” is unapologetic, colorful, and fun—in other words, serious play. (That fabulous cover alone is worth the seven dollars!) Then there’s the If-you-are-here-to-judge-who-I-love-then-don’t-fucking-read-my-book dedication, “ …dear husband and best friend.” Bittersweet. These are glittering surfaces under which we watch politics, love, identity, and hope skitter and flit. To be seen, known, and (dare Riel even hope?) accepted scuttles, darts, sways, and sashays through these poems. The collection is perhaps less bedizened by craft than I’d wish, but it’s still busy as a thriving tide pool. I want these poems to be more successful. I hunger for form: wit in the structure, wicked enjambment, saucy puns, even the occasional sly anagram could work here (and I think Riel could carry it off). So intense was my desire, I searched for syllabics—no shit, counted on my fingers—but found none. Perhaps I missed something. So many poems in this collection succeed or partly succeed. And they always try hard. That’s a compliment (when did we all become cynics?). The poems address, identify with, and speak from within famous persons: “Robert Goulet Is Dead!,” “Kitty Carlisle is Dead!,” “Ishmael’s Afterthoughts,” a poem about reading Tennessee William’s obituary. In several poems, Riel’s speaker channels then makes into his own aspects of Lena Horne, Chris Evert, and Cindi Lauper. These ventriloquisms convey an interesting mix of anger, humor, admiration, and the seemingly inevitable self-loathing of the outsider. In “Lena Horne,” a poem in multiple parts, Riel oscillates between Horne’s voice and his speaker’s. Here’s a sample of Horne: Dixieland’s shears can’t snip me out. Today’s houses have antennas. MGM kept me out of the story so the plot would splice nice if I were gone. I have cause to dwell on it. The going’s a little rough until that sinister line in which the voice suddenly clicks when threatening to “dwell on it”. It works for you or it doesn’t. The voice mixes opposition, injury, tenderness, and sometimes tells more than shows as the speaker tries to hit all the factual points while keeping all the plates spinning. It’s a project that sometimes ends up in pieces. But Riel is passionate and expects the reader to do at least some thinking, which I appreciate and celebrate. Returning to “Lena Horne,” we have the speaker’s voice, “Days later, biographies/ fanned like feathers on my bed,/ I’m puzzling out your sorrows,/ trying on their contours.” And in “Chris Evert,” there’s this quiet, effective moment: She was the perfect avenger, a paper doll whose life had tabs my scissors could trace. After school, I’d try her on, let her overlay what was wrong. Riel ends with a sonnet eased from constraint, “For Patrick, My New Nurse,” in which the speaker notices that Patrick: …. remained unruffled (I focused on the telling little muscles at ease around his eyes) when my hard-on rose in thanks, alive Here Riel gathers force by playing off the loosened structure against the limitations imposed by illness. Gay identity is complicated, living is painful, being sick is humiliating, loving is sometimes at a distance and yet Riel brings it to us in this chapbook just as he finds it-- confusing, tender, enraging, agonized, vibrant, enduring—in short, damned difficult. Riel steps out to meet what comes with attitude. His next book? Looking forward to it.