Cities of Flesh and the Dead, by Diann Blakely

ISBN: 1932418261

Some poets and some poems are so simply themselves there is little a critic can do to illuminate the poems other than say, Read these. One thinks of Donald Justice or Philip Larkin. To this list, I would add Diann Blakely and her wonderful new collection Cities of Flesh and the Dead. This is not to say that there is nothing to praise in Blakely's new book. Readers can point to the brilliant textures of her language, her supple ease with forms, or the relentless questioning of her poems. If poetry is one of the art forms providing some consolation for the writer of these poems, then the others are cinema and music. This is as it should be; most poets of Blakely's (and my) generation have logged far more time in front of the stereo and the movie screen than seated in opera houses or wandering through art galleries. Thus, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Tina Turner, the anonymous music makers of Memphis and Nashville, and even Pee Wee Herman appear in these pages. But art alone is no consolation; Blakely finds solace in the lives of artists who last. While she calls out to and cries for the ones who died young the Lynda Hulls and Kurt Cobains another part of her soul is sustained by the example of artists who last and remain productive. A lovely and harrowing sequence of poems in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper, is dedicated to Anthony Hecht, a poet who remained active and productive until his death. A sonnet about the film Pretty Baby is dedicated to Jerry Wexler, the legendary record producer whose career spanned decades. Even the long life and odd career of Leni Riefenstahl provide some hope. At every turn, Blakely's poems confront what it finally means to be alive. The making of art, of things meant to last beyond the artist s lifetime, must confront a world that simply does not mean for things to last. In Before the Flood: A Solo from New Orleans, a day trip to that city teeters between disillusionment when confronted by heat already swathing the narrow smelly streets, their beer joints/ and souvenir shops selling masks half price after Mardi Gras. Yet the speaker, uneasy among strippers in round the clock bars and a man kneeling on a street corner begging for mercy, finds a footing when a young mother dealt tarot cards and told my life story so truly I tipped/ her ten dollars with hands/ that shook, then walked smack into two men swapping envelopes. If this mix of beauty and danger is typical of New Orleans, it is also emblematic of our lives in the early twenty first century Blakely has always been a scrupulous poet, one who works at her own pace, and that craft is rewarded in the fine poems that make up Cities of Flesh and the Dead (it is worth noting that the entire book is a very handsome production). The blend of high and pop art in these poems, the attention to craft, the sheer exuberance and precision of the language make this a book that places Blakely alongside some of the masters she names and pays homage to. --Al Magines, Gently Read Literature

Working from the outside in: this handsomely designed book in a seven-by-ten-inch format has a consequential heft in the hand and gives pleasure throughout to the eye. The promises made by the physical aesthetics of the book are more than satisfied by Blakely's work within. Cities of Flesh and the Dead, Blakely s third book, is composed of five sections which hold nineteen poems, many of them long and sequenced. Some are in memoriam poems for other poets: Anthony Hecht, Lynda Hull, William Matthews, and Herbert Morris. Because of this, an elegiac tone runs through the book, but it is by no means the only note struck. Part of what we find in poems, we bring there ourselves, but I was struck over and over again by Blakely's balancing: of contemporary and colloquial language and imagery with accomplished use of formal structures and meters; of the self and how it shifts in different settings, at home in the South or, sometimes, strangely more at home abroad; of the tensions and contradictions of family relationships. These poems seem necessary. They have an urgency about them as though the writing of the poem is part of the balancing act of staying alive. Blakely, on the evidence of these poems, is well read and widely traveled, and she has been paying close attention to the world she lives in. To give a laundry list of some of the subjects that appear in her poems: the movie Psycho, violence in Northern Ireland, Jack the Ripper, paintings by deKooning in the Guggenheim, Federico Garcia Lorca, T. S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne, snake handling, Antonioni, Warhol, Aristotle, Gone with the Wind, Anne Sexton, New Orleans, Pee Wee Herman, Leni Riefenstahl, country music, and Caravaggio. There s even a series about Tina Turner, in ten call and response sonnets. In a less confident or mature poet, such variety might come off as faux erudition, but Blakely's accomplishment is to convince this reader that she has internalized each allusion, so that, like the collage art by Peter Goodwin on the cover of her book, it s all connected in her imagination. Because of Blakely's honesty in looking at violence, sexual power dynamics, losses, and existential alienation, her moments of transcendence feel earned. In Home Thoughts from Abroad, a sonnet sequence in ten sections, the speaker in section #2 describes her mother shriek[ing] : I hate babies they mess up your nice things. Yet, in #8, the speaker, now an adult, thinks of her mother, How tired she looks, and worn and asks, God, what forms can / Love take except the smudged, the failed, the human? Another poem, Antidepressive says of a painting ascribed to Caravaggio, Sure, it s just art but suggests that art, in dark times, might be just the thing to pull us through. --Jennifer Horne--Alabama Writers' Association