Then: how do I review a “selected poems”? How do I review not simply a book of poems, but 132 pages of poems written over 30 years — essentially, a career in poetry?
Then I closely read all the materials Veasey sent me and realized he’s also a playwright, a singer, a former teacher and journalist.
This is a man who has made words, in all the styles and genres in which they can be presented, his life’s work.
Rather than be further daunted, I decided that maybe Veasey had already done much of my work for me — the distilling of his life into readable art, one that makes a commentary on what he’s all about, what he’s best at and what matters most to him.
It’s all encapsulated in his poems.
In fact, the first five lines of the collection, from the poem titled “Red-Eye,” sort of preface this idea:
I guess I am a passenger
And life, a train, a hurtling blur
From which I see
What pots cold strangers sit and stir
That won’t fill me.
Right out of the gate, Veasey posits himself — as many artists posit themselves — as an outsider looking in on the rest of the world.
This is where the use of form and structure come into play. First, the poet observes. Next, the poet responds; and third, the poet shapes his response, creates an artifact of the observation and, in using the guidelines of a fixed structure, pays tribute to the observers and responders that came before.
Sonnets abound in “Shapely”; in fact, the entire middle section is devoted to nearly 40 pages of them. When a poet is so obviously skilled at the straightforward narrative, it impresses me to see also a fascination with sonnets because it indicates a desire to be as succinct as possible. The form’s prescribed rhyme schemes and metrical patterns present structural challenges, but there are also organizational and conceptual challenges, too.
If you’ve ever heard a writer say that a poem “just has the feel of a sonnet,” what that person is referring to is the sonnet’s tendency to present a conflict in the first third, then to elaborate on it in the second. Then, by just past the halfway point, a good sonnet will present a “turn” (the technical word is “volta”), a place where the narrative veers off in another direction, toward some conclusion.
Veasey demonstrates that he is utterly aware of the sonnet’s ability to force word economy in the telling of a story. Take “Forgiveness,” for example. The second quatrain ends with the line “We struggle down the road to compromise;” this is the poem’s volta. The next line reads, “Agree to bend, accept each flaw…” (p. 75). Thus, the poem turns toward compromise or resolution, without more fanfare than a line break.
But sonnets aren’t Veasey’s only preoccupation. This is a poet who likes to play with form and structure. Find here pantoums, triolets, terza rimas, villanelles, sestinas, tankas, rondeaus, even a limerick and a ballade. Each of these forms give Veasey a set of built-in guidelines for writing poems on a variety of topics, from the personal and political to the personal-IS-political.
Veasey’s strongest poems, in fact, are those that don’t shy from personal connection, as in “A Quiet Memory:”
We rode bikes on the boardwalk, Dad and I,
on early mornings, while the crowd still slept.
We shared the time much like a secret kept –
that truce was possible. It was a guy
thing. (p. 66)
Another poem, “Real Man Rondeau,” seems to be a commentary on the traditional gender role of the male: “A real man tells you that to feel’s a sin” (p. 26). You’ll never need to ask which is the real Jack Veasey: the guy who waxes nostalgic about father-son bike rides, or the one who tells us that “real” men believe “gentleness can threaten” (p. 26).
Veasey’s satire doesn’t antagonize, though. In “The Green Man,” the title of which references a figure in pagan folklore (I presume, based on a poem mentioning the pagan sabbat Samhain only 10 pages earlier), Veasey is perhaps giving voice to all men who don’t fit that “traditional” portrait of “a real man” when he says, “Society thinks he’s been left behind. / He smiles and keeps the secrets of his mind” (p. 113).
Veasey’s poems are accessible and honest. The variety of topics and forms makes them exciting to read, and he speaks with a refreshing directness. A collection of selected poetry is not typically based around an over-arching theme, and so can be difficult to review. “Shapely,” though, needs no story other than that of its author: An accomplished and seasoned poet has been crafting words in our region of the world for more than three decades.
Here, in arguably his most ambitious collection, is his story.
The author: Jack Veasey currently resides in Hummelstown, Pa., with his partner of 36 years, David Walker, and is a native of Philadelphia. He is a member of Harrisburg’s (Almost) Uptown Poetry Cartel, sings second tenor with the Harrisburg Gay Men’s Chorus and has released a CD with his folk rock duo Open Book; won two awards from the national Lesbian and Gay Press Association for articles written for the Philadelphia Gay News; and has been a guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered” program.
Publications, awards, prizes: Pushcart Prize nomination in 2010; recipient of a fellowship from the PA Council on the Arts; two-time honoree of The PA Center for The Book’s PENNBOOK celebration; poems appearing in The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Painted Bride Quarterly (Philadelphia-based), Fledgling Rag (Harrisburg-based), Harbinger, The Harrisburg Review and many others
More: Check out Veasey on episode 12 of Culture & Main (beginning 33:38)
Event: Jack Veasey will read poems at the next Lancaster Poetry Exchange gathering, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at Barnes & Noble, 1700 Fruitville Pike, Lancaster.