September 8, 2007

Review: Blind Date with Cavafy

Blind Date with Cavafy

Marsh Hawk Press, $12.50 paperback

Placing such a quirky title on the cover sets up the expectation that this poetry collection will deliver its share of literary chuckles. A quick browse at the table of contents (“Breakfast with Socrates” and “I Hate You, Too, Catullus”) only builds that anticipation. And indeed the moments of dark levity abound.

From “Deux Ex Machina”:
There have been times in my life I wanted to douse my apartment
furniture in gasoline and light a match. But then I read

the Want Ads and decide to change jobs for the third time

in a month.
From “The Aesthetics of the Damned”:
Who hasn’t shoplifted

a navy blue skirt to match the bruise on their forehead

they got from running into a lamppost

on their way to a Lord & Taylor Clearance Sale?
But make no mistake, Steve Fellner doesn’t write out of easy laughs. Though the speaker comes across as the town chump (in “Epiphanies,” he’s the only one who’s unaware that his monologue is an epiphany), the tone is usually somber, and each poem builds toward a complex representation of a personality that is curious, sardonic and intelligent. And, yes, it is all communicated through a self-effacing humor.

The strategy however doesn’t distract from facing the serious subjects in the book, like mortality and suicide (“Death still eluded me. But life became more clear.”), and the questioning of faith (“Only God likes us unadorned, unadored.”). Indeed it seems to guide the reader to the unsettling revelation that pathos is the most effective method of communicating the everyday dramas of this cold-shouldered world where “miracles are nothing/ more than accidents we like.”

And in terms of exploring sexuality tragicomically, there is something of Augusten Burroughs in Blind Date with Cavafy, especially in the poem “Self-Portrait,” an autobiographical narrative that takes the reader through a twisted tale of an adoption, a coming out, and a coming to terms with the feeling of lovelessness. But it provides insight into the odd contemplations expressed at other moments in the book. In the poem “Criticism,” for example, the speaker dwells over a scathing review of a film:
How relieved I was
that something deemed so unnecessary

could receive attention. I read that review

at least seventy-six times as my parents planned

their trip to Cancun without me.
And still later in the poem “Consider the Fates,” the speaker examines his ill-luck:
Blame the garbage man for picking up the trash
after three. If he had done it earlier, your family wouldn’t have found

your bank receipts. Which showed a zero balance. You gambled

your entire inheritance away at the racetrack

in one Sunday afternoon.
Fellner’s deadpan delivery disarms the reader (The poem “Judgment Day” opens matter-of-factly with “The line is long.”), but he never fails to reel the true sentiment of his poems back in. And by the end of the book, though even the funnier lines don’t seem as funny anymore because the pain underneath has surfaced fully, the reader will come to appreciate and trust this “funny man” as the compelling teller of the hard personal truths:
Forgive me for shoveling dirt into your grave,
imagining the broken earth crushing your body, breaking

your bones, filling you with a happiness you never found in me.
by Rigoberto González