Helen Losse, Review of Mike James’ “Elegy in Reverse”
by Helen Losse
ELEGY IN REVERSE
Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2014
By way of simplest definition, elegiac poetry expresses sorrow for someone who is dead. Why then, did Mike James choose the title Elegy In Reverse for his latest collection of poems? Answering that question is necessary to understand the book. It is also the book’s subject.
In the first poem of James’s eighty-page tome and in the first of three unnamed sections, he describes a memory / vision / story of his late father.* His “old man saw a stone / suddenly decide to be a bird,” before making two circles and flying away (“Anecdote In A Grassy Field”).
before i was born
when miracles still took place.
James has set the tone. If drunks become disoriented, and his father was a drunk, then
…it only makes sense
that my father…
could forget the way back to our apartment
on Hinton street
(“What’s Done and Not Done”)
No sorrow is expressed here. And in “Those Were The Days,” he describes his—now departed—grandfather, sitting in his truck, drinking his “green bottled beer,” throwing empty bottles at “the thousand cats / his wife kept,” but “never” smoking (“Those Were The Days”).
you think about in bed
Nothing is drawn out in these poems. Nothing is overstated. Much of the time, James merely describes what happened the way he remembers it, or so it seems to the reader. These are poems about dead relatives, but there is no lament.
James’s poems also offer the positive, such as , “grace can come in the harvest of wild things” (“Wild Apples”).
In the second section, James uses more references to faith. His subject base is larger, and he looks for lost signs. “The Lost Poem” speaks to many varieties of incompletion.
…the one you meant to write…
maps with landmarks
no longer there
Our time on earth is limited, so
(“After A Long Winter”)
But James wants the “real”—the physical.
I don’t know what to make
of the language
(“On Refusing To Say Grace Before Dinner With My Wife”)
These poems are filled with emptiness. Even as James views a painting by Anthony DeBernardin, he notices a woman who “carries an empty wine glass / across a grassy field” where she laughs with twenty-five other women. Three of these women are “belly deep” in pond water, laughing, and, because they are subjects in a painting will continue laughing. James knows, “they are either swimming / or bathing,” and his response to not knowing is “no matter” (“The Pond Bathers”).
James’s lamentations are not for people; he wishes for days gone by, perhaps a second chance.
if I could only
paint as well
I was three…
(“The Shape Of The Sun”)
Then in a two line poem, James redefines “elegy” and claims his own awkwardness.
a love poem to an abstraction
(“The Definition Of Elegy”)
Now the readers know what James has been after all along; elegy touches. “The Definition of Elegy” serves the same purpose as a titular poem in other books. It serves as an almost climax, a touchstone of meaning.
The third section deals with loss. It begins with a knock-knock joke, ends with a lobster, and covers the spectrum of human losses. Getting lost with a friend, losing your mind, lost things, the end of summer, and the results of sex change are among James’s subjects.
Elegy In Reverse does not tie things up neatly in its final poems. There is no definitive resolution. The poems seem merely to stop, which is entirely fitting considering the book’s title and tone (voice.) An elegy often begins with details and builds a case for sorrow, but James has written an elegy in reverse.
If we add a bit of conjecture, we can see that life goes on elegy or no elegy, so life must go on with an elegy in reverse. James seems to take the position, we are all nuts, or at least, all poets are abnormal—walking out of step. “Say you make your living writing poems” (“As You Go Along”), he begins,
but nothing stands out
a willingness to speak like a pirate…
before they take you to a quiet room
in a special hospital
for people just like you….
And then he ends with
if a lobster came up to me in the street…
we would argue…
about who should go home first
The words “home” and “first” have so many layers of meaning. And deciding who should win the argument matters. Sure, the lobster belongs in water, the poet lives somewhere other than the beach. But with respect to “elegy in reverse,” perhaps those two final words indicate a longing for that place and time “when miracles still took place” (“Anecdote In A Grassy Field”) and elegies were still in order. Perhaps “home” means a time before the poet’s birth.
People often make jokes about things that cause them discomfort. Is James out of step, or that the sorrow speaking? Elegy In Reverse by Mike James is a book of poems worthy of a second reading. These are poems with truths that echo.