Scott Owens, Review of Paul Hostovsky’s “A Little in Love a Lot”

by Scott Owens

Paul Hostovsky
Main Street Rag, 2011
ISBN: 9781599483030

I think anyone who doesn’t love Paul Hostovsky must not know Paul Hostovsky. I said once that “he always finds a way to make me happy.” Having just read his third book of poems, A Little in Love a Lot, that statement remains every bit as true as it was when I first said it. What makes me happy in this book is the way his poems remind me of all the loves I’ve had — brief ones, long ones, foolish ones, serious ones, deep ones, simple lusty ones — and how in the end all of these loves, even the failed ones, are part of the same love, the human love for life, for human life, an appreciation of the familiar, of sharing, of recognizing the possibilities of joy and the never-ending quest to attain it.

One of the qualities that makes reading Hostovsky’s poems so enjoyable is the lack of pretension. Mostly what we find here is just honest, entertaining poetry about things we’ve all thought but never had the wisdom, passion, chutzpah, or facility with language to put into words. One of my favorites, “The Debate at Duffy’s,” illustrates this point well:

She said that sex was a yearning of the soul.
He said it was a very compelling argument
of the body, a compulsion. She said it was
a spiritual compulsion. He said it was nothing
if not carnal, carni, meat. This conversation
took place in a bar. The background music was
so loud it was in the foreground. The bodies
on the dance floor were moving in ways that
would interest even the dead if they could only
remember how to live. There was a baseball game
playing on television. On the table were two
empty glasses, and the bottle’s green phallus
which she took in her hand and pulled toward her,
pulling him toward her as she poured them both
another drink. he drank deeply, felt the spirit
filling his cup. Then he looked into her eyes and saw
that she was beautiful, sexy, and at the bottom
of the 9th, suddenly, surprisingly, irrevocably, right.

Not only is the language and imagery of these poems smooth and approachable, but there is a decided absence of unnecessarily complex academic language and obtuse imagery. Nor is there excessive allusiveness. It is almost as if (Gasp!) Hostovsky wants to be understood. What allusiveness there is exists on a level where it doesn’t bring distracting attention (Hey! Look how clever I am!) to itself. Rather, it is like a subtle sauce added to an already delectable dessert, not entirely necessary to enjoy the experience, but a deepening and enriching element for those with a more discriminating palette. Such is the case in “The Affair in the Office,” where the reader need not recognize the echo of Roethke’s “Dolor” in the line, “full of the inexorable sadness / of cubicles” to enjoy both the communal gloom of office life and the shared guilty pleasures of gossip and forbidden love “among the ruins.”

Perhaps the quality that most endears Hostovsky’s work to the reader is that he more than any other poet I’ve read in the past decade truly “gets” the necessary duality of human existence. He is neither glib nor morose. He takes life seriously but simultaneously recognizes the near absurdity of it all. He wants things his way but readily laughs at himself and moves ahead when he doesn’t get it. The self-mocking tone in the opening lines of “Battling the Wind and Everything Else” show his ability to exist within this duality of gravity and levity:

My neighbor — the one with the flagpole
and the flag, and the pickup truck
and the patriotic bumper sticker and the perfect
lawn, and the leaf-blower with the power pack . . . .

As this poem about contentious neighbors continues to unfold, one can’t help but recall the neighbors in Frost’s “Mending Wall” as well as Frost’s similar ability to poke fun at himself while criticizing others. Even the title of this collection tells us the speaker of these poems is a man who not only reads Hikmet (“you must live with great seriousness / like a squirrel, for example”) but knows how, and can help us learn how, to live those lines.

Usually, when I read a writer as remarkable as Paul Hostovsky, I can’t help but dislike them a little. Jealousy, envy, fear of my own inadequacy combine to create an irrepressible sliver of animosity towards them. However, something about Hostovsky’s grace with language, willing self-effacement, charitable spirit, and clear grasp of the paradox of human life and the negative capability necessary for the daily survival of it make even the most illogical ill-feelings towards him almost impossible. “Almost,” because any writer reading A Little in Love a Lot will experience some jealousy, will wish at least a little that they had managed to write these poems first.

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