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Einstein at the Odeon Café: Poems from the Big Table

By: Jerri Beck, ed.
Reviewed by: Kathleen Thompson
Churn Dash Press, 2009
$16, Paperback

Technically a chapbook (less than forty-eight pages), this book contains twenty-seven poems by eight poets. The cover features an oversized cup and saucer with a hint of steam rising against a black background. The Odeon Café in Zurich, Switzerland, since 1910 a hangout for such artsy and radical intellectuals as James Joyce and Albert Einstein, has a similar logo. The title page echoes this cover image. Inside fourteen pieces of clip art are set alongside the poems.

How invigorating to be reminded, surrounded by in-your-face-tweeting heads, of the art of conversation—its give and take, its eclectic range of subjects, its intellectual stimulation—interspersed with an occasional lyrical whisper.

Irene Latham opens the discourse with an ekphrastic poem, the first of seven persona poems, all with historical figures as subjects. “My Dress Hangs There” introduces Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, known for her struggles through self-portraits. In the last two stanzas, Latham successfully captures the essence of two movements which emanated from the Odeon Café: sound poetry, the precursor of beat and performance poetry, and surrealism. The repetition of “and when” and “I will,” three times, followed by the surreal image of Kahlo devouring her pain under a mango tree, suggests a strong woman taking control of her maimed life. The phrases beg to be said aloud, or rendered in color.

“Father,” the final poem by Barry Marks, draws closure with boundaries set by a parent. Whereas three of his four poems end in a cocktail conversation tone that is either abrupt, self-deprecating (“I could not possibly improve on that” from “My Story”) or somewhat dismissive (“and of course I ask for the check” from “Father”), “Daughter, Emerging” in three brief stanzas stands out as the most lyrical. Marks begins with a close up-image, “Finding you / was as sudden as a forest flower,” zooms out for a larger view in the second stanza, “when life is no longer / a script written / for another actor,” and then draws the reader back for introspection with a repeated line, “Finding you was finding myself . . . .” It is a coming of age, for father and daughter simultaneously.

Robert Boliek’s two poems spark the intellect. “Imagining Albert,” an allusion to the book’s title, begins, “His physics I will never understand . . .” but I suspect Boliek understands much more about relative motion, and the speed of light, than does the average poet/reader. “The Audubon Elegies” is a clever mix of genres. Perhaps, like the anti-war, anti-art protests at the Odeon Café, this is an anti-genre poem. Or, at the very least, it is a worthy example of the newest genre, the lyric essay, which by definition has both the nonfiction of an essay and the lyricism of a poem. Each of the five parts is devoted to an extinct bird: Dodo, Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, Pin-headed Duck, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The divisions consist of a numbered list of six items, a short essay in one-sentence paragraphs, a poem in free verse, flash fiction, and a traditional poem of four quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, efef. (Oh, for a couplet to sum up and make it a Shakespearean sonnet!)To simply term this a prose poem would be to ignore that final soaring verse; therefore, I’m terming it a lyric essay.

The sophistication promised by the cover art is diminished within by the clip art. Black and white objects (a silver spoon, the face of a meter) simply cannot convey the emotional/intellectual investment of the poets. And where was the Einstein/Odeon factor? Aside from Boliek’s risk in form, and Seth Tanner’s questionings about the ramifications of global warming, I sense no splitting atoms, no raised fists.

Further talking points, however, do include Tanner’s stunning image of penguins adrift on an ice floe, Suzanne Coker’s masterful conceits in “Apple” and “Tandem,” Jerri Beck’s haunting tribute to Studs Terkel in a vignette of a neglected wife, Shannon Smith’s riveting account of brain surgery, and Tom Gordon’s alliterative, elegiac image of death/war: “the air about you rent by gnarled vowels / from the gruesome grammar of battle.”

A poetry book can suffer from too much sameness. Tired of your usual morning blend? Wake up to this kaffee klatch of poems; then, let’s talk. Aug 2009

Kathleen Thompson is the author of The Nights, The Days and The Shortest Distance.

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