Robert Polito is the editor of the exciting new collection of Manny Farber movie criticism, Farber On Film. But Polito is also an important poet. He’s not, however, self-important: his recent collection Hollywood & God (University of Chicago Press), is frequently like a series of scenes in a thriller, and you, not the poet, discover all the clues. His mysteries can be comic-profound ones.
For example, in the poem “What A Friend,” “your Aunt Barbara” is driving home one night. Her car gets a flat tire. It’s raining. She has a spare but no jack. No one will stop to help her. That is, no one except…
“That’s when Jesus showed up/He lifted up the back of the car, and she changed the tire.”
The poem concludes: “Imagine/Jesus Christ traipsing around like that, helping people get home.”
Polito makes poetry out of pop-culture in a way that deepens, not cheapens, either the poem or the pop. Elvis Presley, the Edgar G. Ulmer thriller Detour, and Dunkin Donuts all put in appearances in poems whose lines snake across the page, wrapping themselves around rhythms that surprise and hypnotize. In the moving title poem “Hollywood & God,” Polito writes:
“In the movie of my life/my father died/after I forgave him/& when my secret tormentor said may the ghosts of your dreams/gnaw at your belly like a wolf under your jacket/did she really want revenge/or was she just killing time?”
Amy Gerstler, in her new collection Dearest Creature (Penguin), really knows how to begin a poem with a grabber:
• “You’re the overthrow of all my former opinions/a black taffeta dress says, faintly exhaling/Chanel…”
• “Do excuse the luminous toxin that migrated/from the stash in my handbag to your tuna sushi…”
• “Peonies may indeed be the sluttiest of flowers… ”
• “He picked me up in a greasy spoon made eyes at me/invited me back to his pad where we smoked some rad/Acapulco gold in our birthday suits… ”
Is there any way you are not going to read the rest of each of these poems? Most of the entries in Dearest Creature contain some mention of an animal — birds, caterpillars, tigers, and dogs, dogs, dogs — that inspires full-blooded warmth. Gerstler’s technique varies. Sometimes she uses short, sharp lines with bitten-off rhymes. And sometimes she dispenses with poetic forms entirely, as in “Interview With A Dog,” whose structure is the humble Q-and-A. It begins:
“Q: Why on earth did you eat that ten-dollar bill? It can’t have tasted nice.
A: Don’t be gruff. Anything that falls on the floor in mine. Can I have a cookie now to change my mouth lining flavor? Can I? Can I?…”
Frequently comic, her work is also ferocious. Gerstler is one tough cookie. Who else would begin a poem with this vehement declaration?:
“If I end up an arid isle of desirelessness/it will be 1000% your fault.”
Ha! As I say: How can you not read the rest of that poem?