Book Review: Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey

Bloodcoal & Honey

Dan Gutstein’s award-winning book (Cover design: Justin Sirois)

When I find myself unaccountably crying as I reach the end of a collection of poems, when the combined weight of the poet’s felt human presence and the loss seeping through the poems brings tears, I know something powerful is about. This happened as I read one of the last poems,“The Last Out,” in Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey, which I finished while on a long bus journey.

The last time I remember tears burning at the end of a book of poems was when I read Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. The ambush was easier to understand: Hacker’s sonnet sequence tells the story of a love affair from birth to breakup.

I was more surprised to feel a lump in my throat with Bloodcoal & Honey. Although many of the poems paint human affection and loss with skill, just as many are forays into surrealism, verbally stunning poems that are obscure in meaning and feel to me like odd objects behind a gate that few readers may be able to penetrate. This isn’t a criticism of the collection. But it is a fact that lots of poems there have bizarre, disjointed imagery and syntax that doesn’t gel around anything real and that surrealism isn’t my thing. Yet, somehow, I mostly loved the book. Gutstein is a really interesting poet.

Many surrealistic poems are fantastic in their pure sound, such as this from “the chance”:

never let it be said that fields change. the smallish pumpkins
are sunken crowns. the stolid headstones, tablets of law.

where the wood gives a deep stand, the spotted deer glance
marbles a bound. where the wind’s raw palm thumps the season.

They alternate with poems that provide a solid sense of the speaker–his feelings and sharp, quirky perceptions–and the emotional situation. That’s where sadness seeps in.

The backdrop of Bloodcoal & Honey is the random alleyway murder of a man named Warren, someone close to the poet. Although only six poems center on the murder and criminal investigation, a sense of things being heavy, grim and out-of-joint pervades the first section. (Six poems in the last section of the book concern the death of Gutstein’s brother and take on a gentler mournful tone). It’s not a depressing read, though, because the writer’s voice feels like company and because he, the grieving survivor, so intensely observes and interacts with the world around him as he goes about his business.

It’s clear how ragged grieving is: thoughts of Warren and the shooting, which the speaker didn’t witness, intrude at the most mundane times. In “The Speed Break,” the poet is trying to break a board in karate class:

“Come on, man,” my teacher says. But I’m all stares
at the black knot. Staring, as he concludes, softly, “—Shit.”
A scene I can’t possibly imagine. The gun tapping Warren’s back.
Then a twitch, then a flash. No pain, nothing but a thin mix
curling down the shoulder chunk. A hole in his back. The black knot.

In “The Alleyway Now,” he’s walking in a meadow with a friend:

…as I turn and see you
hipdeep, a stalk between your teeth.
You call my name, Daniel.
I tilt my head, thrust my hands toward blue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I heard footsteps, a gun clatter off brick.
I followed blood drops behind a dumpster
where I found Warren, a hole in his back.
A lamp came on in the alleyway.
Night had moon but no color, shots but no rescue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I cradled his shoulders.

The title suggests that the alleyway of the shooting is within the speaker at every moment. That’s fitting because these poems are urban. There’s an edginess to them. Even when we can’t be at all sure of the situation or story, we know we’re in a city spot, a gritty one. In some poems, details show we’re in DC. Gutstein seems to be fascinated with hidden corners of the urbanscape, especially anything industrial, low-tech or decaying:

here as in tonnage of diesel,
a transformer humming sidewise torsion.
Loopy flowers unbuckle beside barbed wire.
(“Industrial Island”)

A crowd grew across the street from the wrecking ball, which thumped the dying hospital further into a spaghetti of rebar and boxy rubble.

I liked the book’s eclecticism, and I wasn’t the only one. How depressing to plough through a new collection and find 45 poems from the same mould. Not here! There are prose poems, anecdotal poems, unidentifiable stanzaic forms, lyrics, stuff smacking of “language” poetry and more. Still, techniques characterizing Gutstein’s voice permeate the poetry: language heightened by unusual, juicy word choice; a tendency to write in fragments; vivid images that don’t quite coalesce into a unified scene; phrases repeated unsettlingly. A touchstone mood: besides loss and urban grit, missed human connections.

In considering why reading Bloodcoal & Honey feels glorious rather than sad, I’m reminded of something Harriet Barlow, Director of the Blue Mountain Center, said to me: “Poems about sad things aren’t depressing. Meaningless things are depressing.” Gutstein’s poems never feel meaningless, opaque though some may be.

It was gratifying to see that the local Washington Writers’ Publishing House awarded Bloodcoal & Honey the 2011 poetry prize and is still publishing gems.

Dan Gutstein

Dan Gutstein self-portrait

Online editor’s note on the author, lifted from his siteBloodcoal & Honey is Dan Gutstein’s second collection of writing. His first, non/fictionwas published by Edge Books in 2010. His writing has appeared in more than 65 publications, including Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, The Iowa Review, The American Scholar, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and The Best American Poetry, 2006 as well as aboard metrobuses in Virginia. He has received awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, University of Michigan, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other groups. He works at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and served as Visiting Assistant Professor in creative writing at The George Washington University. He was named the 2010-2011 “hottest” professor in America by Rate My Professors, and his body temperature has risen accordingly.

On Being Invisible: Our Elderly

This essay is part of a series inspired by our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. The first one was posted September 2011, and all feature people who have helped make marginalized segments of our world more visible to mainstream America through poetry, prose and visual art.

Compared to others in the developed world, the United States is a young nation. Only 13 percent of us were over the age of 65 in 2010. And only 15 percent of those lived with their children, compared to 65 percent in Japan and 39 percent in Italy. Thus most of us have little day-to-day contact with the demographic that will–sooner or later–include each of us. That the elderly remain invisible to many is not only their loss but also ours.

IM and mother

My mother and me, drinking champagne at her 90th birthday party in Ellicott City, MD (Photo: David Cash)

IM and mother in Altach

My mother and me, a tad younger, in Altach, Austria (Photo: Viktors Jurģis, my father)

When my mother moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me at age 83, it was a revelation. I already knew that she was smart and strong. (Any survivor of two world wars ravaging her homeland, Latvia, was that by definition.) What I didn’t know was how funny and fun-loving she could be once the burden of starting over in a strange land was lifted. The smiling lady who emerged was one that I recognized from old photographs of us as war refugees in Austria. I also didn’t know how hard it was to grow old and face death–my mother did “not go gentle into that good night”–and how much I would miss her once she was gone.

When I heard that Christopher Kennedy, renowned poet and son-in-law of a Latvian childhood friend, had lost his mother as well, I asked him to switch subjects for the essay he had agreed to post here. He was kind enough to go from addressing audacity, the theme of our upcoming issue, to the elderly. Not unrelated topics, as it turns out.

Chris, who heads the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Syracuse University and has authored poetry collections such as Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, winner of the 2007 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, was granted a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, which he is using to produce a major work about his late mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what he said about her final years:

My mother passed away two months ago. Her heart stopped in her sleep. She was 95 years old and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the last three years of her life. She was, by any standard, an elderly person, but those last three years, difficult and troubling to be sure, allowed her to transcend the limitations age imposed on her.

By that I mean her proclivity toward time travel, which allowed her to experience the present populated with characters from her past. I was at various points her brother Tom, just home from reconnaissance over Anzio; her brother Joe, the star athlete; and her father William, the deputy sheriff. My job was to be a good character actor, slipping in and out of my roles as fluidly as she slipped from 2009 to 1945.

Of course, this was the upside. My first experience of her dementia, which I knew to be more than a “senior moment,” was when I was summoned to her assisted living facility. I was told that she had a vitamin deficiency and was dehydrated. I drove her to the ER. On the way, she told me very emphatically that she was not pregnant.

As she was 92 at the time, I had no reason to doubt her. But there was no irony in her voice; in fact, she was trembling. I began to ask questions about her concerns, and it became clear that she thought she was a teenager and I was driving her to the hospital to have the baby. She told me again that she couldn’t be pregnant. “I’ve never even dated,” she insisted. I wrote the following prose poem about the incident:

Memory Unit: Pregnancy Scare

On the way to the hospital, my 92 year-old mother tells me she can’t be pregnant. I’ve never even dated, she says. I don’t know what to say. I explain that she’s deficient. Vitamin B. Precautionary measures. But when I check her in, the woman at the desk says she’ll need to go to the fifth floor, the psych ward, where she spent a few weeks the year before. The doctor asks her to disrobe, and she tells him she’s not pregnant. He seems impatient, unwilling to humor her. I tell her it’s all right. No one thinks you’re pregnant, I say. The doctor excuses himself. He’s red-faced, impatient. A nurse appears with a hospital gown, tells my mother to put it on. Why? my mother asks, near tears. I take the gown from the nurse and set it down on the metal table next to where my mother sits. She’ll be fine, I say. The nurse seems about to speak, then thinks better of it. She looks at the doctor. They leave the two of us alone. Now what? my mother asks. I don’t know, I say. She says, the least you could do is ask me to dance.

Christopher Kennedy

Christopher Kennedy with his mother and father in a suburb of Syracuse, NY

I knew in that moment that my mother, as I had known her, was gone. Over the next three years, I learned about numerous other selves contained within her. I found out about the good speller, the shy teenager, the waitress, the bride, the young mother, the victim, the widow, the grandmother, among many other facets of the woman who gave me life. I gained a perspective on the elderly that I would never have had were it not for my mother’s illness. Interacting with those various selves gave me the opportunity to know more about my mother even as she lost more and more of the world around her.

A few days after my mother died, I prepared for her calling hours by helping to put together a photo collage. As I sifted through old pictures, I was struck by how happy she seemed. Whether it was walking down the street with her waitress friends or walking down the aisle with my father, there was a subtle joy that I had failed to see when she was alive. It occurred to me that I hadn’t been able to properly perceive her until I saw all those different selves, clustered together, smiling back at me, forcing me to acknowledge the depth of her person and the richness of her life.

Though my own mother remained as sharp as the proverbial tack until her death at age 91, medications administered to ease her pain took their toll. She became uncontrollably agitated at the hospital, and orderlies subdued her by strapping her into a straightjacket–baby blue, patterned with small pink flowers. It was a terrible time for both of us, but I still smile when I recall an incident that occurred after she was admitted to the ER for the last time. Lying there, doped up on OxyContin, plastered with Fentanyl patches, battered and bruised from a fall, she reached up and smartly slapped the face of a male nurse who had lifted her gown to assess the extent of her injuries. “How dare you!” she said.

Our elderly have fascinating stories to tell, and the telling benefits everyone. Whether through journal therapy, literary publications like Persimmon Tree or Passager that are set aside for seniors or more mainstream outlets, the more experienced among us can share their wit and wisdom and gain a greater sense of self-worth in the process.

And lest it be said that those substantially over 65 cannot compete with their younger counterparts, nationally acclaimed novelist Pauls Toutonghi, who worked with me in writing the original “On Being Invisible” piece, compiled what could be construed as an answer to The New Yorker’s “20 under 40”: his own “8 over 80,” part of “In Praise of Older Men (and Women) Writers.” Not to steal his thunder, but here’s the list:

I’m sure somewhere there are comparable lists of poets and visual artists.

Note: Since this piece was completed, another mother’s life was lost: this time, the mother of our Communications Coordinator, Eva Quintos Tennant. Emedita “Medy” Esguerra Quintos was born in Cotabato City in the Philippines in 1931 and died January 23 in a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. She raised four children and touched countless lives as a physician, both in the Philippines and the United States. Defying a terminal cancer diagnosis since 1966 and fighting the effects of a recent, debilitating stroke, her final accomplishments, as itemized in Eva’s eulogy, included learning how to use Skype as well as trouncing the competition at Bingo and Mahjong.