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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Guest Review: Oswald On Boss

Helen Oswald reviews

Todd Boss comes from Midwestern farming stock; he plants his words carefully, judiciously spaced, with no wastage, like precious seed, and his lines grow up lean and tall through the centre of the page. The first two sections of the debut collection Yellowrocket, deal with the poet’s early years. The title poem tells the story of a family engaged in a bleakly biblical struggle with stubborn soil, trying to make the best of bad land but not without some Job-like grumbling:

The work was clay
deep, the debt was
north slope steep…

We were the unsung
angels of our portion

of the plat. And for
all that, on Sundays
the Lord gave us halos
of hat hair and gnats…

Boss’s talent for internal rhyme gives his often very short lines a pleasing musicality and the literal poverty of the setting is wittily contradicted by lyrical riches: “Had holes been coins,/ our gloves and boots/ would’ve jangled.”

Many of the lines display the tough wisdom and bone dry humour of those who have fought against the odds for survival. Wit is often a consolation, but the poems are also characterised by a melancholy beauty that comes in flashes, like lightning. In ‘In the Morning We Found’, the narrator’s parents are described walking through the wreckage of the aftermath of a violent storm:

My parents walked,

 alone and paired,

through the weird

 carnage, mourning

–downed trees still

 green and breathing

as soon they would

 no more–fallen

as in a war.


The difficulty of connection between those who live closely-bound lives – so simply expressed in “alone and paired” – pervades the collection and suffuses it with sadness. Love, like the rest of life, is not easy here, where marriage can easily become ‘a bicker’. The heart of the book examines the cut-and-thrust of an embattled relationship and the cruel intensity that can accompany intimacy:

“You asked me how,” she said.
                                                            I said,
“How what?” and reached to shut
the tap, but she stopped me, her nails
in my veins.

(‘Mess’)

The love poems take us into the painful heart of a crisis of failed communication and separation. ‘Six Nights in a Hotel’ evokes the cold chill of this state: it starts simply with “My wife and I/ a mile apart” and, through the dispiriting details of the “crusty screws” and “crack of tile”, finally arrives at the unflinching confessional stanza:

My pride
is a fire
retardant blanket

It covers but it
does not warm.

Here again is the precise imagery and distilled style that Boss employs with such ease and effectiveness. Mostly his touch is assured, almost magical at times, but occasionally he approaches a little too close to the prosaic, as in the poem ‘Don’t Come Home’:

Don’t Come Home

ranks first among
the worst things
someone you love
can say. Not even
the common I
hate you does
the damage Don’t
come home will
do…

Here, the short lines and carefully chosen line breaks cannot do quite enough to elevate the poem, despite some bird imagery that arrives too late and feels somewhat forced, as if the poet perhaps sensed the weakness. This ‘talky’ tendency occurs again later in ‘She Rings Me Up’, where the frisson created by a misunderstanding between the narrator and a check-out girl does not carry enough narrative interest or poetic charge to earn the poem’s five pages. The title of this poem (like nearly two-thirds of those in the book) doubles as the first line – “She Rings Me Up/ four frozen dinners/ and a pint of politically/ correct ice cream” – and this may encourage the temptation to run away with a somewhat loose narrative. A well-chosen title provides the reader (and writer) pause for thought at the start of a poem and again at the end where, reconsidered, it can lend another layer of meaning. It is a shame that a poet such as Boss, who considers his every word so carefully, so often misses this opportunity.

After the emotional storm at the centre of the book, the last two sections breath more easily and begin to restore the possibility of the “melancholy joy” that is the natural territory of this voice: “Everything’s a mess/ and genius all at once…” in ‘The Day is Gray and the Lake’; and in the tender love poem ‘To a Wild Rose’ the poet asserts, “There is a way/ in this world for beauty,/ for good.” The possibility of redemption underpins this collection, connected to a religious sensibility worn lightly and often with a sense of irony. Although seldom overt, it is there right from the start in the language’s biblical undertones; in the struggles with the enormous forces of nature; in the capitalised features of human failure (“Pride, Ruin’s bride-to-be”); in God’s dealing of ‘Another Hand’, and at the “brick altar” of ‘Wood Burning’.

The difficulty of negotiating a relationship with God is examined most openly in ‘Worst Work’ where, even if some of the language is distinctly modern, the metaphysical conceit and syntactic struggle with “the great provocateur” are reminiscent of John Donne’s heart/head tug-of-love with his Creator. Here, the narrator places himself in the humorously awkward position of having to give God feedback on a bad poem written about the poet himself – both poem and poet being his “worst work”. But, despite the cheeky tone, love is never in doubt:

I owe it to my faith to give the old fart
the benefit of doubt.
It’s hard to write a poem
about someone you love,
for one thing. And for another,
it’s hard to take a lesson from
your own worst work.

Some of the later poems that explore life’s more temporal epiphanies also demonstrate Boss’s talent for sharp observation through a whimsical lens and bring to mind the serious play of his fellow American poet, Billy Collins. In ‘Things, Like Dogs’ a laptop is capable of climbing onto a table and eggs of cracking themselves into a skillet in a bizarre but benign act of welcome; and, in ‘A Man Stares into the Same Painting Day after Day’, a brief moment where a small domestic detail is noticed afresh, is transformative:

And then one day something appears
in a window that wasn’t there before.

A curled cat or an ornate crack or a
stack of folded linens, it’s hard to tell.

And a window is opened in him, and
and he is placed upon his understanding’s
gritty granite sill. His life has a fresh
smell. It tingles.

This, of course, is also the effect of good poetry: Boss’s first collection most definitely has the power to generate that tingle. Its poems vibrate with a sharp and sensitive awareness of the pains and ecstasies that every life must bear.


Helen Oswald’s Learning Gravity, from Tall-lighthouse, was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. She works as a writer and editor from her home in Brighton.
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