Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No Sparks from Spacks for "On Desperate Days"

Barry Spack’s voice is assertive, booming, decidedly decisive in a poem
that glories in the nostalgic equivocation that takes place in his poem “On Desperate Days”. The protagonist roots around what we assume is the house he grew up in, sifting through layers of emotional sediment and inspecting collected objects that held significance for him. The nooks, the corners, the stairs seem to come at him faster than he can register his sensations and give his responses properly clinical names:

I'd putter in the attic above
neat rooms with books and beds, gleam
of cared-for sink and tub, stairway
down to the place with the lovely name,
the living room, and farther down
the dreaded basement roots of that house,
spider-thread and furnace-throb,
dust in the dingy corners, pipes,
oh desperate days returning the way
wipers sweep wild rain from a windshield
and new rain comes .

Even as the details reveal a snapshot accuracy in the way they are presented, there is a lack of praise for what has been inspected again, after years of absence; in contrast to what has become a subgenre among stay-at-home poets , whose usual contents have a narrator outlining the collision of past ideals and existence of rounded-off situations and a harder life’s experience where ideas are revealed to be flawed and coherent narrative becomes open-ended and without resolution, Spacks refuses to offer up the shrugging irony that winds up a sigh, both of regret and relief. The resignation signifying that one part of his life is done with and that one must walk slower into mature acceptance of what’s been done and what one will do with the next phase of their years, Spacks remains restless, discontented. This is a survey that hints at the choices he might have made instead; there is the strong smell of resentment where one suspects the narrator thinks he was living the wrong life, the wrong house, with the wrong family.

... days when I prayed
somehow my hungers might leach away
as I formed junk-sculptures, gluing a coil
of abandoned vacuum-cleaner hose
to a fractured mirror, married to woe
while seeds of changes ticked at my heart
original joy the next house over!

This might be a slap at Billy Collins, a fine poet who’s made a career writing about his home, his neighborhood, his passions, delivering one safely assimilated paradox, irony, and bittersweet one after the other. Good as he is, very few of Collins’ poems remain with you; few lines haunt you, nag you, come to you in those instances when your thinking needs another mind to reference. Good as he is, Collins lacks an edge, the urge to reveal human drive as something stupidly self-centered, egocentric. I find reading Collins like taking the same tour over and over again; what might delight after a while becomes a repeated punch line one has forgotten. In many ways, I think Collins does essentially the same thing that Charles Bukowski had done, which is to stake out of the territory of subject matter he knows well enough and continues to wrest surprise after surprise from the material for the audience they're writing for. The subject matter varies, but the method is the same, and it's worth noting that their audiences, by and large, are those who don't read great amounts of poetry. I would hope that those enamored of the easy epiphanies and predictable tragedies in either poet remain curious to the form and investigate other contemporary, much lesser known writersSpacks’ poem, in fact, sounds like Collins if he was woken up from a deep slumber and asked a series of inane questions; cogently linking phrases together wouldn’t be the strong point one would have at that moment. Cogency and coherence aren’t Spacks’ strengths either in this poem, with its pile-up of anonymously described home objects, the purpose of which is deferred until the ending, which contains the sudden admission that one wanted to move into the house next door and become part of whatever life it contained. Restless, irritable and discontent Spacks’condition with “On Desperate Days”, and there’s a missed opportunity to undermine a complacent genre of “McPoems”, that sort of verse that keeps its dynamic range under the boiling point. Even a usurper of the form must have a segue to have their revolution makes sense to those it was supposed to matter to.


  1. I hated that last line. But that's all I could really say, so I didn't.

    Reading the poem, I would have liked to read a narrative by the author. I guess I mean to say that reading the poem made me want to write something similar but in prose.


    ... days when I prayed
    somehow my hungers might leach away
    as I formed junk-sculptures, gluing a coil
    of abandoned vacuum-cleaner hose
    to a fractured mirror...

    This made me think of someone trying to fix a car with bailing wire and duct tape...but more creatively. When I read it, I decided he was talking about fixing a relationship. Cuz, well. It's a poem, and I expected metaphor.

    But then I thought about how quirky that would be, and how I wish I could hear more about the sculpture, and the house.

  2. p.s. i like the new look here, most especially your header. it works.

  3. Thanks, catnapping. I like to change it around now and again; the photograph was a snapshot I found of a Model A Ford rusting in an overgrown empty lot; I used a free photo editing program on it to make it look even funkier.

    I started a blog for my poems, so that your know. It's called the Poems of Ted Burke (he announces modestly) and the address is

  4. thank you for the link. i'm bookmarking it.


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