Thursday, January 24, 2008

Joe Osterhaus has a sure tongue


Truth be told, I rather like most of "Food Lion, Winchester, Tennessee", andI find Joe Osterhouse's writing to be rich and evocative, not overwritten. Elegant is the word, I think, a balance of concrete specifics and artfully placed qualifiers, both elements which produce a vigorous and quietly urgent music of an ordinary set of observations considered from a larger view, larger just so. Over writing , for me, is the evidence of a bad idea, or an idea that hadn't been completely thought through in which the author tries to compensate with a muscled-up language inclined to bullying the reader to accept a premise instead of taking it apart, inspecting it closely. This trait, I think, is a central reason why so many political pundits sound like a cracked-out Greek Chorus of doomsayers; the smallest incident on the campaign trail or in Congress is riddled with every rhetorical gun in the arsenal .

Osterhaus isn't over writing with this poem, as overwriting by default means a writer has an imprecise grasp of the qualities he's trying to join. The poet here offers up choice descriptions of credible scenes.

Night sways at the lit boundary of the lot.
Downroad, a Lotto billboard dances with flies,
whose reels card strands of glare, and epaulet
a gambler shaking the bias from two dice
and a drum sunk in the embankment, gouged with rust.
*******Inside, the clockwork mists
***track Raleigh's world: from a field
*********of broad leaves, twists
of cured tobacco; and, from harbors gigged with rest,
a waxwork queen wept on a waxwork shield.
This, I think, is in a league with the best prose we take from the short stories of John Cheever or John Updike, or even Hemingway , in his tour-De-force description of the Cuban marina in the middle of his novel To Have and Have Not. This is a world where qualities of light matter, either brightness burning through the blackness as morning comes, or the darkness hovering over the lit patches of the earth as citizens scurry to complete their tasks and perform their duties. The sweep of this stanza is smooth, euphony, moving with the grace of a Hitchcock tracking shot from the line inside the store with it's details of cashiers switching shifts, to the edge of the parking lot as night moves in, revealing just beyond the edges of the lot as darkness gathers tobacco fields and military bases.

Osterhaus won me over with his apt language, his skill at describing the commonplace in interesting ways, such as when he writes Downroad, a Lotto billboard dances with flies, or in the next stanza where he writes of a shopping cart's Wheels corkscrewing. This, for me, is the work of a writer who has developed his ear and mastered the rules of writing to the extent that he knows when he can credibly and effectively break them; Wheels corkscrewing is an choice turning of a noun into an adjective. Osterhaus loves language enough to abuse it wisely.Or again in the first stanza, where there is the perfectly rendered description of the minor tedium of waiting in a supermarket checkout line

From here, the line seems not to move at all;
back beneath a clock that diamonds the hours
with blushing vents of coke.


James Cain couldn't have been more effective with an opening line; for him, one is tossed off a water truck in the first sentence, and here, one is in the afterlife waiting in a line that will not move no matter how many times one checks his watch. Osterhaus has that talent too few poets attempting this sort of broad sketch have, the knack for putting the reader inside the details.

The final lines spoil the effect,though, and the sudden evocation of soldiers, the Iraq War, and a bit of self doubt concerning the narrator's bravery compared against that the enlisted men is more pandering for ironic effect than anything else.The poet feels compelled to make it known that he is the sensetive sort who harbors a self-recriminating demon that informs that he is a spineless worm, even in a supermarket at night. It's a sudden intrusion of the narrator's issues , and fails for the reason that Osterhaus ought to have found a less obvious way of dealing with the soldiers other than gently flagellate himself.This is a Lifetime for Women movie moment when a sudden detail changes the tone and causes the participating heart to drop to the floor with the sudden gravity of cruel fate. The only thing missing here is the low toned, off key violin chords to signify that the good vibe is now soured;does the poet really need to Pavlov his readers? It rings false, a coda of self-criticism that neither convinces nor benefits the poem as a whole; had this been my poem, these would have been lines I would have highlighted and deleted and try instead for an ending that didn't seem a cardboard prop in a world of hard objects.