Thursday, March 08, 2012

Poet Todd Boss's Pitch: Family's Value

(Reflections on PITCH by Todd Boss, Norton Co., 2012.)

A piano pitches out of the bed of the family truck when the father misjudges a turn on an icy road.  For poet Todd Boss, the anecdote crystallizes some truths about his own parents, beginning with "the broken cords, the empty bed".   He examines its facets in four poems under the cute title "Overture on an Overturned Piano," and he plays musical puns throughout.  These glints of wordplay are incidental pleasures in Boss's work, burnishing his reflections on family in poems about his father, his own children, and even beloved dogs.

For one poem in the suite, "Fine," (another musical pun), Boss begins, "I wonder what it was like to have to call his dad on the phone the morning after and answer the question: So, piano make it home all right?"  The humiliation of his father is a trope throughout the collection.  Behind many of Boss's poems is the story of a family moved to a farm that fails.  "Your Dad Never Did, in the End," is one such poem.  "The God of our Farm Had Blades," describes the rust-encrusted windmill overlooking the fields.  Another poem, "Broke," accumulates dozens of connotations of that word, a crushing summation of the family's experience.  

Yet, in "Apple Slices," the poem that introduced Todd Boss to public radio listeners world wide when he read it to the gourmet host of The Splendid Table, he tells us that he has "never labored harder, nor eaten better" than a time when he and his dad took a break from farm work.  "And Then One Day in a Department Store" seems, even from its title, to be an afterthought about the father in a later section of the book, a bit of Muzak recalling the classical piano pieces "your father used to fumble over all those years before," and "you'll feel what he felt -- or feel again that familiar longing to learn...." 

There's an undercurrent of self-dissatisfaction, mirroring the father's.   Boss's persona is a mere "paper-pusher," and "a pitch-man for the rich man."  Boss writes about a family reunion of three generations in a ghost town of "Luckenbach," (pun on "lookin' back"?), admitting 

Only recently have I begun
to let my small-town
farm roots show.
                             I've been a fool.
In a pair of poems "Amidwives," Boss finds sardonic fun in the fraught relationship among mother, wife, and the man they have in common.

But it's mostly delight that shows in Boss's work.   In a favorite poem of mine, "This Morning in a Morning Voice," which I called a "secular psalm" in a comment on its appearance in Poetry years ago, Boss lies in bed marveling while his son sings a kindergarten ditty on his way to the bathroom.   Other poems are playfully erotic ("Feast," "My Love for You Is So Embarrasingly"), and many are those "secular psalms" I described that pay such close attention to the wonders of creation that they come close to expressing gratitude to a creator.  He comes close to saying just that in "The World Is in Pencil," speculating that sketching the world "had to be a labor of love." 

A couple of poems stand out for what they say about specific occasions.  One tells of sitting through "A Stock Homily" for Aunt Emily, which, in its "anonymity" feels "like sin / to those / whose pages / her life was / written in."  Been there; felt that.     Another poem "My Dog Has No Nose" finds rueful fun in an incident when a dog offers up an unwelcome gift.

I've blogged about Todd Boss's first collection Yellowrocket.  Before that, he showed up in two articles that I wrote about "secular psalms."  Here are the links:

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