Friday, June 05, 2009

Poet Todd Boss: Story and Rhyme

(reflections on YELLOWROCKET, first collection of poems by Todd Boss. See

While Todd Boss’s rhymes jump out at unexpected places, his persona lays back to appreciate or figure out what’s up. It’s a pleasing juxtaposition, like finding mint chips in your vanilla shake. I know from reading the sometimes snarky commentary in the journal POETRY that rhyme and narration are both scorned by a large segment of the “poetry community,” and the pleasures of this book make those self-righteous critics look as foolish as vegans at a barbecue.

Boss organizes this collection almost in the shape of a novel. Part one is memory of parents, grandparents, farmland. Part two focuses on a pivotal event, a storm of July 15, 1980 “Still the single worst natural disaster in Wisconsin state history” his note tells us in the appendix. Part three gives us turbulence of another sort, between husband and wife, with some ups and some violent downs, characterized by “Don’t Come Home” words more damning than I hate you, he says. Part four seems to be about waiting and a need for reconciliation. Five brings us home, with tributes to “Things, like dogs” that are glad to see us in the morning, and a poem about a sleeping son, leading to part six, which brings us to appreciation of nature, his “joy doubled” by perceiving that his young daughter perceives it.

That middle section of conflict is certainly the sharp center of the book, but not its best part. She throws clothes down at the poet, “Tangled Hangers and All,” and she floods the kitchen to make a point, and it’s all effective in the way that staged confrontations in movies are. I’ll remember these poems about conflict, and the ones about the aftermath – such as “Six Nights in a Hotel” that seem to chronicle the man’s exile after being told not to come home, beginning with the very simple and effective lines…
My wife and I

a mile apart
All of these poems take off from narrative events, such as a waitress’s mistaking the poet for someone else. He uses the occasion to think that he has become someone else, and, by placing the poem at the end of this section, Boss strongly suggests a transition from conflict to renewal of relationship.

But other parts of the book feel less stagey and more substantial. I never had two grandfathers, I never lived on a farm, but Boss’s memory of sitting with his grandfathers as they played cards is so vivid and rich that I’ve appropriated it.
they often held me on their laps,
their arms about me, so I could see
their hoards. Their buckles poked
and I fiddled with their braces.
I studied their hewn and stubbled

He puns on the suits of the cards a few lines later as he reflects, “I had no words / for how it felt to sit so intimate with kings, their hearts, their diamonds / fairly dripping through their knuckles / when they dealt.” As usual, he slips in some rhyme, here “felt” and “dealt,” and earlier, “braces” and “faces,” an effect rather like the pleasure of turning up a card that fits the hand.

I wonder what would be lost if Boss put rhymes at the ends of lines? End rhyme has that satisfying feeling of word and idea clicking into place, giving any couplet a feeling of inevitability and unassailability. He does it occasionally, as in a witty epigram called “Wish” from that turbulent middle section of the book:
You’ve never not been negative,
I wouldn’t know you if
you weren’t. You never wish
but in the subjunctive,
candles to the frosting burnt.
He could have written out the lines in a quatrain to emphasize the rhyme, but it’s strong enough. He certainly seems to have stayed up all night to find sound – related words, and a couple of the poems here seem to be more about sounds than sense (such as “Ere We Are Aware”). I suppose that Boss prefers to follow the internal logic of each poem’s content, using rhymes for incidental emphasis, rather than to let rhyme shape the piece.

A couple of poems stand out for opposite reasons. “She Rings Me Up” strikes me as a stand up comedy routine, as the comedian plays the innocent guy who believes that he’s picking up on flirtatious vibes from a grocery store clerk. He pretends not to get what’s happening, while we can all figure it out. This same persona is Boss’s throughout the book, but here’s the egregious exaggeration of it.

“The Day is Gray and the Lake” develops a conceit with impersonal but alert interest: the day is the work of “the maker” who “can’t make up his mind, always fussing.” The lake “shifts, mercurial, / like modeling clay, / the million thumbs / of wind at work upon it.”

I heard Todd Boss read a new poem on the NPR program “The Splendid Table,” concerning the taste of freshly harvested apple pieces, enjoyed all the more because he shared them with his father, sitting silently during a break in their work, on the back of a pick up truck. He admitted that he moved to the city as soon as he could, and spent a decade denying his rural past. Now he embraces it.

The poems are richer for the background story.

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