I See Hunger’s Children

Selected Poems 1962–2012, by normal,
LUMMOX Press, 2013,
111 pages, paper, $15,
ISBN: 978-1-929878-80-2
Buy the Book

My favorite poem in this book is “green buses,” set in Newark, 1963, when men began thinking of ways to flunk their draft physical.  The narrator shows up as: “98 lbs / pigtailed, silver fish ear ringed / gold lamé coat.”  He recalls, “crew cut guys yelling / ‘sweetheart! hey sweetheart . . .’”

but I was naked

& my dick was average

your typical run of the mill medium sized Jewish dick

Asked what he does for a living, he responds “imam jazz poet.”  The sergeant says, “section 10 — GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!”  Soon the narrator is laughing with an old friend, also “section 10,” who wore “. . . a sandra dee skirt / an annette funicello hairdo / & a joan crawford dinner jacket.”

This poem captures the nascent counter-culture / anti-war movement from the perspective of a streetwise Jewish kid — part Allen Ginsberg, part Lenny Bruce — laughing back at the unenlightened macho boys.  He already knows it’s better to make love not war.  This poet understands how the world works — or at least how America works.  In “American Child,” “the baby is diced up in dinty moore stew” and “the newspapers are shouting from sea to sleazy newspaper sea . . . from the sands of sam’s club to the halls of home depot . . .”  His poem “awakening —1967” has this epoch-defining passage:

the summer of love saw all the brylcream

boys I used to play chess with go to

viet nam & go to my lai & come home

in body bags & throw bricks thru the

windows of 7-11s & take hideous lsd

trips & have satoris in front of the

tasmanian devil pit at the san diego

zoo —

Although the collection opens with the seven-page title poem, I prefer the shorter poems like “at the end of the beam with mick and lou,” the story of a twenty-three year friendship between two construction workers, one of whom gets cancer.  There’s a Philip Levine-like setting with Richard Price-like dialogue.  Not long ago, Tony Hoagland wrote a piece for Harper’s about “imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon.”  This poem, which shows us the awkward ways men, especially working class men, try to be friends and express feelings, no matter how inarticulately, would be a contender for my list.

In the introduction, publisher RD Armstrong calls normal a spoken word (italics his) poet before the phrase existed.  Some of the longer poems in particular would seem to fit this description.  However, in my experience, many of today’s “spoken word” poets could afford to spend a little more time with the written word. Spoken word or not, no one can doubt that normal is a reader.  One of the delightful details in this volume is his choice of epigraphs, from Brecht, Camus, Lorca, and Vallejo to Sri Rama Krishna, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, and Bob Kaufman.  (“Crossroads” is a wonderful poem about him and Kaufman listening to jazz and getting high together.)

It would be easy to typecast normal as another post-beat iconoclast tossing barbs at everything coarse, crass, and greedy about America, but this volume also contains some very tender and compassionate poems.  In “luna and the late sun” he writes of the relationship between his dog and his neighbor and how much he enjoys watching them cavort in his yard:

luna is last stages middle age

plump almost hairless no make-up

lost 2 kids — one to cancer

one to aids

luna is single & what she calls

a “late in life lesbo”

quiet no money torn gray parka

shuku loves luna almost as much as

shuku loves me

This tough guy from Passaic can do more than shoot salvos.  Bio notes tell us he’s spent 35 years as an RN.  He has a heart too, conspicuously on display in a poem dedicated to the late singer Suzannah McCorkle, “where the songbird sang”:

last yr I heard you killed your

self —

something about depression & that

empty void where the songbird sang

i would gladly have flown into

that void & filled it with

my own singing

This is not the voice of the grizzled survivor, the unbowed cynic, but the caregiver who, in “The Request,” says, “God asks nothing more of a poet / Than to chart the rain.”

I did a double-take at “Appalachian Cabin.”  The title is so different from “don’t rape the singing bird,” the bucolic locale a bit far from “upstairs at the hotel dante” (the first line of “the shooting gallery”).  It concludes:

The place has survived:

A supreme testimony to the

Genius of a hammer —

Long ago, when the world was

Still trying to live a simple life.

This poet has seen a lot, most of it not very simple.  Readers of this book are the benefactors.

Kevin Sweeney