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Notes Toward an Apocryphal Text

By: Alan May; Images by Tom Wegrzynowski
Reviewed by: Stuart Bloodworth
Port Silver Press, 2006
$13.50, Paperback

The poems in Alan May’s Notes Toward an Apocryphal Text appear as tight little blocks on the page, like columns of newspaper print, or as if larger poems had been trash compacted. I admit I had trouble getting past the seemingly arbitrary form. Then early in the collection I came upon this:

I am like a fish, black
spot—false eye—near my
dorsal fin. Don’t know
which end to bite do Ye?

I laughed and agreed to follow. What I discovered was a strange, unique music sung by a weary, lovelorn voice.

Dark humor informs one poem and deep, unrequited yearning the next. When May is really cooking, we get all those ingredients in the same pot:

Like a dog, I pull you
through the snow and
frozen tundra.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
All night I chew on ice. In
the morning, one leg
hiked, I write you sonnets.

Also, the imagery here is always precise, whether it’s realistic (“That Pontiac K-car with / the pool cube in its / exhaust”) or surreal (“We walk quietly past the / cobra asleep on the / harpsichord.”)

It occurred to me that the form May chose isn’t arbitrary at all. These folks lead constricted lives. They are boxed in, and even scanning the horizon they see “the laundry on the line: / your little white flags.” A cheap girl in a cheaper town takes inventory in a motel room:

. . . I
own a television, a ball
bat, a Sunday dress, a box
turtle shut tight for seven

Yet strong as the despair is May’s abiding love and compassion. In “The Image of Christ,” he concludes

. . . though off
in the distance, one could
hear a moan as a hammer
hit a nail.

That’s the real blood and bone stuff, before the naves and frescoes. No one is saved in these poems, but you know May is rooting for the guy who, after climbing three flights, “leaves a rose by the trash.” May knows the world is screwed up but can’t help loving it anyway. This prayer is my favorite:

. . . My heart nigh bursts
for each and every soul.
I’d commit unpardonable
sins to get the lot of you
into heaven. You run, I’ll
draw the Devil’s fire.

With Alan May on my side, I’ll duck and take my chances.

Stuart Bloodworth teaches English at Motlow State Community College in Tennessee.

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