Drawings by James Siena
(Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 2003)
Poet, publisher, curator, art dealer, and guest lecturer Geoffrey Young has, in collaboration with artist James Siena, published his fourth collection of poems entitled Lights Outs. The book is divided into seven sections. There are fourteen drawings and a cover painting by Siena. From the outset Young shows himself to be a poet who is fluent in poetic forms, moving easily from tercets, to quatrains, to long and short line couplets, elegies, prose, and forms of his own devising with some attention to meter, although most are composed in free verse. There are also a number of poems influenced by New York School poets like Frank O’Hara and Clark Coolidge whose poetry Young clearly admires. Like their Abstract Expressionist counterparts—who worked to distinguish themselves from European painters of the day—these poets sought a new poetry that was free of iambic directives.
There is in Young’s verse a sense of play, of self-deprecation, and hijinx that conjures up a confident, even hubristic bard who speaks in language both plain and exalted and who has an uncanny sense of knowing when to wink. For example, in "Halo," with admirable compression, Frost’s verve, and Ashbery’s fondness for the cliché, Young sets the tone with, "If you don’t / expect / much / you won’t be / disappointed." Neither Young nor the reader needs to worry about that, for he conveys his principles and passions in poems like "Therapy." "You uncover the traces of the crime / you committed yourself;" and "Frank," "O’Hara made friends poems and the world / is a thing called Joe, the city owes him a lane."
But neither art nor literature has influenced Young’s poetry the most. Instead, the one note sounding above the others here is his love of music. In poem after poem he pays homage to the specific music that is his muse and raison d’etre. Poems like "Ray Charles," in which he writes, "Ray is to me what I am to him: / Pure hospitality. Never / Exceeded, rarely equaled," and "When I Consider."
The influence of Fats Waller’s
on Charlie Parker’s "Scrapple from the Apple"
I feel an antiquated fad.
Jazz in particular has made Geoffrey Young’s life better, and he later pays tribute to John Coltrane and Don Cherry. Through his poems we know that he collects records, attends concerts, makes an effort to meet the musicians he admires, and that the music is not only a leitmotif in his poetry but that the nature of it has shaped his poetic development. Such reverence is a fine line for a poet or painter to walk. Yet the evidence from reading the entire collection is that while he has struggled at times, juggling his pursuit of jazz, his work as a collector and dealer of contemporary art, and as a book publisher, he’s ultimately made poetry of it. He demonstrates this in "Get Your Mind, Get Your Grind Right: "Days have a way / of filling up with manuscripts, mail/ and minutiae. Too often I pick up / the phone quick to say yes you’re on."
Young closes the first sequence— "Et toi, Beaute"— with a poem entitled "Geoffrey Young," which I feel embodies his poetic gifts. It’s his biography, redolent with hubris and humor. To compare this poem with his sequence of love poems entitled "The Dump" reveals that he has learned from jazz how to modulate the tone of his poems depending on the response he seeks to evoke in the reader. He can be light, blithe, in one poem, bitter and angry in another, bereft of love in still others, but always his humor comes through as he shows here.
I am light, comfortable
and best of all I really work.
I‘m still headquartered here.
but production takes place
nearly anywhere, having come
a long way from way from the scissors,
tape and a drawing board
of just a decade ago
on the coast. The inspiration
remains the same, however,
to create works that provide
style, insight, and durability
for active people of all ages.
Thank you for choosing
The poems in "The Dump" are, I feel, the most direct, the most personal poems in Lights Out. They are terse, emotive poems that read like they were written on the back of a telephone bill.
The painfully direct first stanza is typical of the poems in this section. As the sequence progresses we witness the poet coming to terms with the end of a relationship. In "The Losers" he writes:
On Thursday by phone she says no go.
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
nights, missing her badly…
The language in these poems is plain, raw, stripped even of metaphor. "Anti-Narcissus" reads as if Young recited it while dolefully shaving in front of the bathroom mirror. The lines I have quoted here are typical of his willingness to fully disclose his most intimate conclusions.
I wasn’t having sex
with an image of you
I was having sex
with you. You were
the person I wanted
to penetrate. Even
when you looked away
In "Remains Concerning Brooklyn," the final poem of "The Dump," Young articulates a sort of defiant recovery: "I discovered more about you / when I stopped seeing you at all." Here Young intentionally resists too much and the effect is appropriately bleak. In the last stanza we know that Young is still ailing when he writes: "I can’t call / you anything now, not even a / liar. Because you don’t exist any more." These poems were probably not written for readers under 30, for the pain, anger, bitterness, and sly humor expressed is for those who have experienced the potentially devastating impact of adult relationships. And they are not merely personal because in their unflinching intimacy they remind us that even in our most private pain we are not alone.
In Lights Out, there is the added enticement of Siena’s free hand geometric abstractions. His works do not inform, define, or illustrate the poems, but instead speak to what Wallace Stevens once described as "the relations between poet and painter." Poetry is, in part, a visual art, because both form and content shape the reader’s emotional response. In looking at James Siena’s work here I find that the poetry in his paintings and drawings is that within his abstractions there are articulated spaces that are conducive to the sort of revelations that can occur while reading poetry. The rapport between Siena and Young is akin to musicians communicating through their instruments. They bring to the reader not something better than they could solo, but something different: Together Young and Siena have created a tapestry that dovetails and diverges but never looses the common thread that joins a poetry of how things are with an art for contemplation.
Gary Counsil is a poet and short-story writer and adjunct instructor at Marymount College.