EILEEN TABIOS Engages
He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs by Leonard Gontarek
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2013)
Deja Vu Diner by Leonard Gontarek
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA 2006)
Deja Vu Diner by Leonard Gontarek
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA 2006)
There's a quality in Leonard Gontarek's He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs. There's a certain quality, and it is not strained.
The words—their textures—are ravishing and ravished. An effect coming off seamlessly, effortlessly….
There's a certain flickering light within the poems. Not bright. Flickering. Seemingly fragile, but one senses one can count on it never dying to dark.
There's a balancing act. There's balance. Balance exists even as what one suspects what is being balanced has the weight of feathers.
The poems are quiet. And disquiet.
Here are the first three poems in the collection (sense them as much as read them):
Jackson Pollock was afloat in his life
with a view of burning cruise ships,
which was the world, if that makes sense,
and I understand if it doesn’t.
I think of Pollock when I am walking the edge
of a field in autumn imprinted with shadows
of leaves, and lit leaves among the dark aspects.
I connect the calm to Pollock,
strangely, you might think.
Pollock once sat in a field with elixir,
after selling his soul to the devil.
A mixture of whiskey and dusk.
It looked like the glass was frothing,
but it was ordinary mist.
Recently, I looked at a Pollock painting,
which, always sacred to me,
looked like a bunch of paint piled on a canvas.
One of the saddest afternoons.
I have been laid off from Poetry.
I beg on the street. Can you help me get some food?
No, not money, do my shopping. I hate shopping.
Twilight makes a fence along the cemetery.
In window of music store, they’ve built a house of cards
from Philip Glass’ new CD, Music For Cleaning Apartments.
It starts to snow.
The earth is red. Spears descend from the moon as in a child’s painting.
Stars turn to stars blurred in the river. There is, in me, sadness separated from joy.
Gold window by gold window; I think Philadelphia.
has been given up to the darkness, branching street by branching street.
I suppose I can wax rhapsodic about technique, about diction (lovely lovely lines), about deft juxtapositions, the marvelous details that result from care and clarity. But I'm moved instead to focus on the poems' emotional and spiritual nature. A nature that cannot be grasped (including, articulated) but most definitely can be felt.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can offer it is that I chose to have the book nearby while working on a poetry manuscript (there's a reason Gontarek can write a line like "The world calls me momma."  The poems inspire.) Because I felt the quality, the nature, of Gontarek's poems to be a type of resonance I've consistently seen to enervate/elevate the emotional relationship one can have with a poem. It's a certain resonance whose presence doesn't guarantee itself in even some of the most crafted, smart, witty poems.
(A quality that can happen—per the book's front cover—when an angel chooses to fall and specifically falls onto your lap to keep you company.)
Here's another poem picked by opening the book at random—only the poems themselves can really speak for their existence. But as regards what I've been babbling on about, I find it fitting the book opened to
Rain Early in September
I don't make much of it,
they are words spoken in a dream, and God is a dream.
Leonard Gontarek is a poet new to me (most are; there are so many of us nowadays). It's a testament to He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs, the first Gontarek book I read, that I knew upon putting it down that I'd want to look for his other poems/books. Well, what do you know -- an earlier book was languishing on Galatea Resurrects' overladen review copy shelves: Deja Vu Diner published in 2006. Eagerly, I reached forth and read and ... now write to share ...
... how this earlier book also shares much of the power of his more recent book. Whatever I said about Beyond My Faults ... can be applied to Deja Vu Diner. The combination of mystery and spirituality within these two books are simply potent.
Also mucho paradoxes within. Reading the words make it seem like we're reading stories but we're not. We're reading mysteries. Which means, among other things, that what are not explained -- or inexplicable -- become logical.
It's useful that one of the grounding scaffolds to these poems is a subtle, but strong sense of humor. Here's the ending to "Study / Sidewalk":
The arresting officer is a woman. She has other
ideas for the handcuffs. Why else
would she wear so much perfume
Subtle humor. Like, I find this couplet from "The Book" ridiculously hilarious (is it just my warpedness?):
Humans have nothing in common with flowers.
Zero / nothing.
Another scaffold is eros which is more evident in this collection than He Looked Beyond ... (though that's a statement to which I'd be the first to reply, So what? (it's just that I'm bowing here to the logical temptation to compare the two books since I'm reviewing two books. Anyhoo...)). Examples abound -- the long poem "Dark Rum," for one -- and here's another, an excerpt from "Study / Trees":
...I don't want Beauty through the heart,
small harpoon that opens when pulled out.
I want to break another eggroll with you in moonlight.
Ugly maples, when you're gone.
Of course there's wisdom. Of course. Like this last line to "Arrangement":
In the end, redemption is what we mean when we talk about proof.
I could go on about the individual merits ... but let me just address a particular something that I wanted to raise during my review of He Looked Beyond ... but was probably a tad nervous then. Having read Deja Vu Diner, I'm now compelled to raise this topic again -- which actually is probably my first response to Gontarek's poems: I think one reason his poems are so effective is that Gontarek rises to and manifests well the role of a Fallen Angel. This is not an easy role to pull off (I've seen other poets' attempts that just get mired in sentimentality, pretentiousness and other icky pretender-type stuff). One of the characteristics, I've long (inexplicably) associated with a fallen angel (vs, uh, a regular angel) is a certain muscularity that certainly shows up in this very physical excerpt from "Dark Rum":
I will be neither wife nor lover to the Sublime.
He straddles me and light sticks to my face.
Here are more excerpts from Deja Vu Diner -- these poems may have been written in their own individual spaces but when these lines are plucked out and looked at together, there's a certain implied narrative:
What do I need of a Master.
It is a man, graying at the temples, a man you can put your wing around.
Shot. Like a dropped dictionary. This is my blood.
--“Renunciation / Vaticum”
My companion, inexplicably
reduced to legs &
torso, is transformed
to normal on our return.
We can talk of wings and scars
of wings, but the final stage of
landing is on the knees.
The persona flickering (simmering?) within these poems understands (from "Save Changes to God?") "the angels // & tulips & streets & solitariness & longing for / Human companionship." But at the "final stage... landing is on the knees."
Which is all to say--since I can't say I fully understand the significance of what I posit in the prior paragraph--it's a mystery. And about mysteries, to quote from "Save Changes to God?" they’re "the hard part."
But the poem "Province" declares, "I was sent to earth to earn my wings." In this excerpt from "Four Poems With Gratuitous Sex and Violence," Gontarek displays poetic mastery that makes the references to (fallen) angels not at all overreaching:
I stop for the hitchhikers.
They both run toward the car.
The woman placing her hands on the hood,
leaving them there, though it's a hundred degrees.
The talc of red flowers and dust swirled on everything.
The man comes up behind her, reaches in front,
unzips her cutoffs, yanks them down.
There is no underwear. Enters her.
For those minutes, never takes her eyes from mine.
As the objects vibrate in the haze and landscape,
I knew this was where I was meant to be,
earth, where I would live forever.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. But she is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books. Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza at OurOwnVoice; and her 2004 book MENAGE A TROIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, was reviewed (along with Joi Barrios' poetry) through the essay "The Self Revolution of Radical Love--Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedon in Filipina Poetry" by Michaela Spangenburg at OurOwnVoice. Eileen invites you to her new blog, EILEEN VERBS BOOKS; poets are invited to participate in three of its features: "Poetry and Money," "What Are You Reading?" and "What Do You Re-Read?"