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The Boatloads

By: Dan Albergotti
Reviewed by: Mark Dawson
BOA Editions Limited, 2008
$16, Paperback

Some first books are revised MFA theses, and some are wonderful. The Boatloads, however, is so unified in its themes and in its sets of poems, and conveys such maturity in each poem, that I believe it is shaped more by the author’s obsessions than by chronology of the poems.

The forty-nine poems are not in received forms, yet effortlessly incorporate a lot of craft. Dan Albergotti employs couplets, triplets, and experiments as well, such as in “Sentence Fragments” and a poem in a quasi-Bible-scriptural format, “Book of the Father.”

There are poems about nature, biblical characters, faith and non-faith, a daughter—so it’s like a lot of other books, right? Not really. Albergotti hammers away with a relentless honesty. Don’t expect the typical epiphanies. Animals, for example, refuse to become friends, or inspiration; the egret the speaker tracks at dawn, “has work to do / before the sun pushes another day into the dark.”

The music of those lines is typical of this book, and I particularly admire how line breaks are an effective part of the engine of the poems, as in “A Prayer for My Daughter, Who Does Not Exist,” in which forms of the verb to be are often at the end of the line: “…Let there be / years and years and years, for there is no future.” As well as this fine echo of Yeats’ great poem, there are other echoes, particularly biblical and Greek mythological characters reminiscent of, perhaps, Stephen Dobyns’ Cemetery Nights, as in the poem “Day Eight.” In Dobyns’ poem “The Gardener,” God seems harmless, befuddled by humankind’s sullen demand for freedom. Albergotti’s poem is darker; in fact throughout the book, God/god is absent, or if present at all is manifest in malevolence. “Day” ends with a reference to the destructive Flood: “…He’s already thinking about the rain.” And “Lessons of the Elements: Earth” begins with the woman caught in adultery and spared by Jesus—but shifts to women not so fortunate to be caught when Jesus was around, and stoned with a horrifying, methodical ease by the crowd of men.

Each of the four ancient elements has a poem, and each section has a “song of the gods” poem, as well as numbered songs reminiscent of church hymns. But the songs never become transcendent or transformative; and there are no dramatic rescues, not even for the boy held in a basement by a sexual predator in “Song 246.”

“Vestibule” begins the book and recounts a youthful tryst in an empty church with a girl named Cindy. The speaker says, “And if you say sentiment and cliché, then that / is what you say. What I know is what is sacred.” The longing to say, the quest for how to say, is another theme of the book, and the book effectively argues that in a world largely ruined, sentiment should not receive the typical, knee-jerk condemnation as sentimentality. Instead it is defiant praise of the joys we insist on pursuing against the backdrop of an uncertain allotment of days. Albergotti never holds out the false carrot of a brighter answer just over the next hill, but his craft and honesty carry you along in an unbroken spell to the last, magnificent title poem, itself also dark but surprising. Dec 2008

Mark Dawson’s chapbook, Solitary Conversations, is available from Aralia Press:

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