David Lee’s latest collection of poetry, Last Call (WingsPress, 2014), is a natural and honest pleasure to read. It is like an afternoon at an old watering hole with your buddies elbowed up all along the whiskey-stained oak, heels hooked in the bar foot rest, and the former poet laureate of Utah, Mr. Lee himself, serving up the day’s oratory libations.
Last Call is a eulogy to Lee’s colleague in verse, and late friend, Bill Kloefkorn. The poems also tell a sweeping story set in Garza County, Texas, that revolves around “The Monument to the South Plains.” The monument is young Willy John’s “indigenous sculpture.”
…a tower amalgamated between an obelisk
and a Babel ziggurat, a spiral of plough shares
fenders and motor covers, tractor seats and steering wheels
a corn planter, spring tooth harrow and a flat cultivator
manure spreader, deep trench, disc cultivator and a windrower
Lee’s Garza County, not in the heart of Texas but surely positioned in an important organ — say the spleen? — is populated with characters divers and appealing. Their language is simple and colloquial, roughshod and earthen–“Texanese.” Two retired professors, Billy Klogphorne and Clovis Ledbitter hold court through most of the poems with their bickering and erudition.
That, sir, being a highly commendable votive castureation worthy of one PBR
You can sense that Lee has sat there in Garza County and just listened. Listened in the bars and the town council meetings and the cafes. He’s hunkered down in the buffalo grass at the ends of county roads and in the gravel of the school playground. There is a rhythm in these poems, a solemn plains note lifted with rumba.
Which I accept with honor
Let us go then you and I
while the evening spreads against the sky
like alcoholics to the School Board Meeting
I, sir, am not an alcoholic
I am a votive casturationist drunk
The difference being?
Alcoholics go to meetings
I’m going to Adolph’s
Perhaps you do know Jack Shit
and in that light
I, sir, will be your Sancho Panza
listening to jazz, the morning sage and Raft River bank brush
A few folks come and behold Willy John’s statue, to stand around it, ponder, and pontificate. Then la Bruja, “Eva Saenz Mendietta the Seer” sees a face half way up and states: “Veo la cara de la Virgen and all were sore amazed”. She whispers to Willy John’s father, “Cuidado, novio, if this gets out / it will no longer be a sculpture or monument / it will become a shrine. ?listo para eso?”
bent frostquivering willowwhite
and the road kill breakfast club buzzards
flap flapping across my window like sleetwind
sky curdled into thunderbumpers
gas tank three quarters leaning on half
Miles slouched over my tiny mind
blowing Bye bye Blackbird
because I’m driving all alone
And so they do come, “the paisanos…by the pickup truckloads …until Willy John’s father”
had to build and plumb toilet facilities
I read straight through this collection. Then turned right back to the first page and started over. As with most poetry, second readings reveal new insight, different shadings, like driving over old highways from Twin Falls, Idaho, say, down to Garza County, and then turning back around to see it all from a different perspective. Clovis makes that first leg of the drive in the poem titled “Driving Solo: Clovis Rants A Monologue in Five Acts with Intermission” as well as in “Interlude at McDonalds in Ely, Nevada, drinking coffee after filling up my truck with stagecoach-robbery priced diesel ten point two m.p.g.”
put out fifty five gallon oil drums for garbage
then the word spread to the gringos
who came in station wagons in order to make damn sure
Long titles. There’s also:
The morning Billy Klogphorne taught the adolescent male Sunday School
class lesson on the designated Christian Leader Preparation
outline topic of Genesis 5: 18, 19 and 23, 24,
proving Lamech and polygamy were of the lineage of
Cain and therefore accrsed of God
Why he was never invited back
to teach Sunday School again.”
The “Why” is partly because:
There is that, and there is also the story elucidated to the Sunday school children about Brother Klogphorne’s stob that when invoked keeps his pants up. A story best kept to the imagination or to those so inclined to search out Mr. Lee’s book to ferret out the finer details of why he was never invited back to teach Sunday School.
isn’t it adultery? and isn’t adultery a sin?
that is a wholly different topic
but in any case I do not believe it is necessarily so
Adultery is recreation.
Okay lay it on its side and turn it upside down
standing up so wegn get to the wheel
now you take a pair of pliars and a monkeyranch
you just uncrack that nut like this
loosen it up to where the wheel comes off
you don’t have to take the nut all the way off
So begins a lesson on fixing a flat tire on a bicycle meted out by Johnny Bert Ezell in his filling station “At the Sign of the Flying Red Horse” on a slow afternoon to young Monroe Newberry whose no-account father hasn’t taken the time to teach his boy some of the more useful parts of life. Johnny Bert Ezell knows how to fix a flat tire. And he knows how to fix a car: you start with the easy stuff:
when a car won’t start
the first thing I’d do was check the fuel gauge
turn on the key and if the line don’t come up
it’s probley out of gas and that’s your problem
Too bad the car that wouldn’t start was not the reason Lucy Beth was there to see ol’ Elder Ezell. She did (as I did!) get a fine tutorial on troubleshooting a dead car…but nothing on what to do with a wayward husband.
Details. “now bend down over the fender for a sightline / and click the ignition one bump at a time / till the points come all the way open”.
Details. “Yougn lean over and examine the carburetor when the housing lid’s off”.
Hope. “I’ll bet two dollars to a doughnut / wegn get her done one way or anothern”.
These poems tell a story in sun-struck verse that is irreverent, ribald, and elegant. Words in the vernacular like “oncet” and “twicet” and “wegn” pepper the lines and flavor the world of Garza County. But in the poem “Last Call,” Lee lets us not forget in the end that life is short and good honest friendship and admiration for lost friends can inspire verse that hums with perfect pleasure like a prairie wind through taut-strung bailing wire in the upper most reaches of a Monument to the South Plains.
And you my friend
whom the gods call
into that other alone
wherever you wake
be it desert or forest
mountain or seaside
dry moss and kindling
strike a small fire which
will flicker beyond forever
your bright poem
fork your lightning dance
I will find you
sooner than later wherever
you wait in the darkness
We will sing together
delirious and off key
We will tell great lies
to shame the heavens
We will cook with wine
I promise you this
Life in El Oltro Lado
Reyna Grande's The Distance Between Us, a Memoir
When Reyna’s father leaves the family to go the United States she is two. When her mother follows, promising to return in one year, she is four. For the next five years she, her sister Mago and her brother Carlos are shuffled between grandmothers and considered orphans, because, when a father or mother leaves Mexico for the United States, they very seldom return.
In The Distance Between Us (Washington Square Press, 2013), award-winning novelist ReynaGrande chronicles her early life in Mexico, as well as her experience migrating to the United States. Originally published in 2012, her story of being separated from her parents in the process is not unique; eighty percent of Latin American children entering the U.S. find themselves, at least temporarily, as orphans in a new land. Her memoir provides readers an intimate portrait of the costs of separation to both parent and child.
Because Grande is so young when her parents leave for the U.S. she has virtually no memory of them. To remember her father, she carries around a framed photo from house to house, calling him “The Man Behind the Glass,” and invents memoires of the man who will one day return to save them. To remember her mother, Grande carries the mental image of her umbilical cord buried in the shack behind her grandmother’s house, an invisible tie that binds them together.
When Grande’s parents do return, it is not the joyful reunion she imagined. The children discover their father has left their mother for another woman in the U.S., leaving a broken-down version of “Mami” to return to them, a Mami who pines for the new country she has left behind. This yearning confuses and hurts the girl. She doesn’t understand why her mother, who had left them for so long, would rather be up north in a new country rather than with them.
In 1985 Grande’s father returns to Mexico and decides to sneak his three children into the U.S. Although the family does move, life there doesn’t heal, but possibly even complicates and further injures their relationship. What ensues is a life-long conflict between the parents and their children. A feeling of distance has been created between them not only through physical separation, but through experience.
Grande herself does not fully understand the distance created by experiencing life in el otro lado, or the United States, until she returns to her native Iguala, Mexico as a young adult. Returning opens her eyes to the poverty she once shared with her neighbors, the same neighbors who now find her no longer Mexican-enough. It is then that Grande sees her childhood through her parents’ eyes.
She writes, “[t]he sight of my grandmother’s shack, with its bamboo sticks, corrugated metal roof, and tar-soaked cardboard, shocked me. Had I really lived in this place?”
Grande gains an understanding of why her parents left for the U.S., why her father smuggled her into the states, and why he was such a tyrant about getting an education. As a child she saw beauty in the broken down buildings and trash-lined streets of Iguala, but as a young adult, having experienced life in the elsewhere, she sees a destitution she can no longer ignore.
This memoir is beautiful, experiences and their locations vividly portrayed with colorful imagery and metaphor. Grande’s voice is authentic; as if the author is narrating her story directly to the reader. Additionally, her tale lacks the detailing of gang affiliation, prostitution, and substance abuse often found in the stories of immigrants, details that can, regrettably, create stereotypes.
Although Grande’s life is fraught with heartache, her story is ultimately one of hope; a story of growing up, overcoming, and the healing that seeking understanding can bring. In this way Grande’s story transcends the immigrant experience, and becomes a story for anyone who has felt loss and separation due to changes in location, physical health, job status, disease, death, divorce or any other life changing event.
In the end, for Grande, memories can remain beautiful even if the people involved have changed. She seems to learn this most poignantly when she first watches her mother lament the loss of her marriage and thinks,
I wanted to tell her that as long as she held on to those special moments with her and Papi, they would always be hers—that other woman, whoever she was, couldn’t take them from her.
The author also learns that while some memories are beautiful and should be held onto forever, others hurt and inhibit growth. She realizes this as a young college graduate, afraid of making decisions based on the intense fear of disappointing her father. As long as she holds onto this fear, she knows she will never reach her full potential, so she gently lets go:
“I thought about the first time I had seen the ocean in Santa Monica. I thought about my father holding my hand, about how afraid I had been that he would let go of me. I looked at the ocean, and realized there was no need to be afraid. I had gotten this far, despite everything. Now, all I had to do was focus on why I was there—to make my dreams a reality. I closed my eyes and I saw myself at the water’s edge, holding tightly to my father’s callused hand. And I let go.”
As Grande learns to reach toward emotional healing and reconciliation with family members, she grows beyond her past. Readers of her memoir are invited to consider their own lives and to do the same.
The Utah Humanities Council Book Festival
Readers of good books rejoice each fall as the Utah Humanities Council offers a free statewide book festival. It’s a chance to meet writers of both regional and national renown and converse about their work and ideas — not to mention perhaps having your own copy of their book signed for posterity.
From celebrating Latino literature, an appearance by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, to the return of the popular “Literary Death Match” at the Urban Lounge and lots of readings from sci-fi to mystery to literature, the event, in its 17th year, has plenty to offer this month. A complete program is available here and updates are available at www.utahhumanities.org.
Perhaps the hot-ticket event of the Festival will prove not to be about a book, but about a film with a talk by a favorite-son bookseller. On October 16 at 7 pm, in Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden, The Utah Film Center will present a screening of Wrenched, the new documentary directed by M.L. Lincoln on the life and work of Edward Abbey, whose anarchistic spirit and hilarious novels (The Monkey Wrench Gang) and thought-provoking non-fiction such as Desert Solitaire influenced and helped to shape the emerging environmental movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. Ken Sanders, of Ken Sanders Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City, a long-time friend of Abbey, will be on hand to discuss his relationship with the man and his work.
Former Utah Poet Laureate David Lee makes several appearances around the state, reading from his new collection, Last Call and discussing his work. It’s a rare opportunity to see this delightful writer, as he is now living in Texas (see our review in the left column).
On October 22, the Disability and Literature Book Group at Art Access, 230 S. 500 West, Salt Lake City, discusses Barbara Chase-Riboud’s The Hottentot Venus, about a South African mother widowed in her teens who was sold as a domestic servant to a family in Cape Town. Promised a life of wealth and freedom by a British doctor, she was transported to London and displayed in a cage as an example of female “primitivism,” complete with African garb and a fixation on her unusual physical features. Registration is required for this free session, 801-328-0703.