MEMPHIS JACK by HARVEY GOLDNERLAURA STAMPS reviews
MEMPHIS JACK by Harvey Goldner
Spankstra Press, 2004)(P.O. Box 224, Seattle, WA 98111, firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Review first appeared in The Wandering Hermit Review, Issue #1, Summer/Fall 2005. Editor Steve Potter]
Few poets in the small press can spin a narrative tale like Harvey Goldner. He is a master at weaving a story line around a lyrical poem, and his wild imagination knows no bounds.
I discovered Goldner’s poetry last year in his chap ANCIENT PILOT, which is one long narrative poem, a mystical fable written with the deftness of a Zen practitioner and the wisdom of Carlos Castaneda. Incredibly impressive, and I was hooked.
Now Spankstra Press has published MEMPHIS JACK, a collection of 22 poems, some long, some short, all modern-day fables whirling as if from the pen of the wizard Merlin. This is another beautifully produced chap, a characteristic of Spankstra Press, and one Chris Dusterhoff, the owner, obviously takes pride in, and he should. The cover is hand-printed, using a 1914 VanderCook printing press on Vashion Island, WA, and the choice of paper and typography create a chap that can only be called a collectable work of art.
The first poem in the collection is the title poem. Here we meet the infamous Memphis Jack. "Born in a city like a woman’s purse / cluttered with a hundred comforts, / born in a house like a woman’s / purse (perfumed darkness) / Jack grew up hungry. // Sitting at the table he was given a choice / between two dishes: on one dish lay a flat / game of canasta; on one dish stood a proud / bottle of bourbon. // Jack made a mistake: he chose the bourbon. / His brothers and sisters all chose canasta, / and they learned many things: / they learned red threes; they learned black / twos; they learned to win and lose, / to deal and not to deal; / but Jack learned nothing. / For twenty-three years he lived / in the bottle, learning nothing."
Hold on to your hats; Jack’s journey into the dark pavilions of the soul is about to begin. "But then one day, a hot / summer day, a boy playing war / down by the river, the Mississippi, / picked up the bottle which Jack / had lived in for twenty-three / years, learning nothing; / and he threw it hard against a brick, / hoping it would shatter / and its flying glass shards / would slaughter a few / of the frogs who were living / down by the river, the Mississippi. // Miraculously, Jack survived / and was taken in by the frogs, / who made him one of them. / Jack lived like a frog; he lived / like a frog among frogs; he learned / to catch flies with the flick of his / tongue; he learned to make love like / a frog, to hop like a frog, / to sing like a frog. / Jack sang like a frog / for so long and so hard / that his voice finally cracked. / His voice cracked wide open, / and then Jack sang like a bird."
In Goldner’s poems, the work of spiritual transformation often manifests in the form of physical change. As his characters move from one level of enlightenment to the next, they change into different creatures. A bird, a frog, a fish. And so it is with Memphis Jack. "He sang like a bird until / feathers grew, yellow feathers; / and then Jack flew / across the river and into the trees / to join the finches of Arkansas. // In Arkansas he learned four things: / he learned dawn and then noon; / he learned twilight and then midnight. / And Jack was happy."
Some poets might end the poem here. However, Goldner has another surprising level of transformation in mind for Jack. "But then one day / in the season of autumn / a boy playing war with a bb gun / (his name by the way was B.B. King) / took aim, squeezed; / and the lucky bb / cracked Jack’s skull as if / it were an eggshell. / Jack’s soul flew out, speeding / straight up to Jesus. // Jack sang for the Christ. / He sang like a bird / and he sang like a frog, / which amused the Messiah / a little bit; / so He put Jack in His purse / and from time to time / would take Jack out / to entertain visiting dignitaries. // Well, it could have been worse. / And this is not the end, / believe me, my friend."
Not only do Goldner’s poems sing and dance with lyrical metaphors and similes, but his fables often end like Zen koans, making them simply irresistible for those readers who appreciate the maze of mystical truths tucked between his lines. In other ways, his poems remind me of Longfellow, one of my favorite poets. The rest of the poems in this chap are peopled with delightful characters, like Baba Spider, Drama Bums, Diva Loraine, the Ancient Mariner, Lady Belltown, even Pol Pot and Ravi Shankar. And, of course, we’ve already met B.B. King.
Rarely do I laugh all the way through a chap, but I did with this one. Goldner’s high level of craftsmanship, his wacky imagination, and his commitment to creating entertaining poems makes his chapbooks rare treats. And, like any reader mesmerized by his fables, I always eagerly await his next chap. Order a copy of MEMPHIS JACK and see for yourself. Harvey Goldner is truly one of a kind.
Laura Stamps is an award-winning poet and novelist. Over six hundred of her poems, short stories, and poetry book reviews have appeared in literary journals, magazines, anthologies, and broadsides worldwide. The recipient of six Pushcart Award nominations, she is the author of thirty books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. Her latest collection of poetry, The Year of the Cat (Artemesia Publishing, 2005), has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. More information about books by Laura Stamps can be found at www.kittyfeatherpress.blogspot.com.