OPEN FIRE by AAREN YEATTS PERRYANN E. MICHAEL reviews
Open Fire by Aaren Yeatts Perry
(Whirlwind Press, Camden NJ, 2004)
In his well-known 1983 essay "Poetry and Ambition," Donald Hall writes, "Any remote place may be the site of poetry...but for almost every poet it is necessary to live in exile before returning home--an exile rich in conflict and confirmation. Central New Hampshire?...or Cincinnati or the soybean plains of western Minnesota...may shine at the center of our work and our lives; but if we never leave these places, we are not likely to grow up enough to do the work [of poetry]." Aaren Yeatts Perry's new book of poems is grounded in experiences of home and travel, exile and conflict. It is also ambitious work as Hall defines it: a desire to write poems that endure (and to take the risks that come with such an undertaking).
The risk is that the poet will fail to write enduring poems; but by being too modest in his or her aims, by taking risks only in craft or only in subject or--worst of all--taking no risks, the writer will get nowhere. In his book Open Fire, Perry faces conflicts, takes on cultural risks and craft risks, does not shy away from politics or compassion. He has left home (Indiana, the American Midwest) and traveled physically and emotionally far from these roots, observing carefully throughout his experiences. He has "grown up enough to do the work." He has also been reading, listening to music, walking through urban landscapes, enjoying art, and visiting with the dead, to judge from the scope of the poems in this book; and he knows about prosody, whether or not he bows to its demands. It is ambitious to write about abortion, racism, homelessness, Nicaragua, war, peace, The Big Ideas; it is difficult to write about such things without getting abstract or self-righteous and ranting. Perry usually manages to negotiate the difficulty.
In Perry's poems, free verse often feels like a form--which it should. He relies on rhythm (occasionally a nearly-strict meter, more often not) and internal rhyme, slanted end-rhyming, stanzaic patterns. There's even a villanelle, "Book of Matches." The prose poem is another form he successfully employs in Open Fire: "War Correspondent" reads like an informal press release and ends with a twist. Although Perry's written attempts at "sound effects" on the page are not always effective, these poems (which publisher Lamont Steptoe, in his introduction, exhorts us to read "ALOUD"), pulse with noise, sound, and wordplay. From "Conductor":
And someone headed homeless, smelling like a dead animal, just
woke up and missed his stop, but will ride the loop again and again.
We the seated, itching, inch across our town somewhere in history,
trying to save ourselves by making the five and dime by five.
Trying to find a sin to fit and regretting getting in at all.
There is also wordplay on literary allusions, such as to Whitman in the first few lines of "Grace Lifts Us": "How many battles won with only minor gunshot/Wounds to the body politic,/To the body. Electric, the armies of/human spirit survive." Perry's poem "Word Gets Out" is a clever, ironic commentary on modern poetics, cheerfully name-dropping contemporary literary lions, that wraps itself around the page the way newsprint "will wrap fresh monkfish." Although one may tire of tropes of "The Second Coming," Perry's poem "Lovers on Sand," a pseudo-erotic warning all the way through, reclaims its predecessor appropriately enough: "The nuclear winter will clear in 2525/And some Rough Beast, thinking he's in Bethlehem/Will find Franky's radioactive underwear..." Humor can be scary, and Perry takes that risk as well; he also writes poems that are downright hard to read (I am thinking of the brutal imagery in "Disclaimer").
The pieces that seem best-realized are often "enduring" in a more emotionally-risky way--"When It Fell," "We Chose," and "Cottonmouth" from the first section of memoir poems, "How Twisted Smoke," "When It Rains," and "Grace Lifts Us;" all of these pieces hold up to more than one reading. Perhaps Aaren Perry has not yet written his most enduring poems, but this book indicates that he has the ambition--in the most positive sense of the word--to do so.
Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist and librettist whose work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies. Her chapbook More Than Shelter (2004) is available from Spire Press, and she has two chapbooks forthcoming in 2006, one from FootHills Publishing and another from Finishing Line Press. She is a recipient of a PA Council on the Arts fellowship in poetry and currently teaches at DeSales University. Her website is www.annemichael.com