Kirpal Gordon writes, "David Alpaugh's Heavy Lifting delivers another skillful permutation on the marriage of form and content, this time where poetry meets prose. Each of the first three sections---Fallen Rock Zone, Pebble Beach and Petrified World---are composed of thirteen well-made poems collected between 1995 and 2006 and reveal an idiosyncratic voice, ironic bent and lingual wit, at times irreverent but in a context that might be called rasa lila, or divine playfulness.
"Fallen Rock Zone looks back on growing up. There are plenty of interesting tidbits from the poet's personal life, but the details serve a cause greater than the sum of his experiences. Rather, he repeatedly demonstrates a preference for being human over the pretense of being a genius, a humility met with an exacting eye to craft. Alpaugh makes music when writing verse, and it is in the rhythm of reading these lines aloud that they become most alive and deadly. As Ruth Daigon notes on the back cover, his combination of guts and elegance allows him to "illuminate unexplored corners and wrinkles in time."
"The next section, Pebble Beach, is less personal narrative and more focused on crackin' wise on poetry---its history, its foibles and its emperor's new clothes. Alpaugh signifies on a variety of formal stances that are straight-up hilarious while mocking our current excesses and extremes. Nevertheless, Alpaugh is at his best when the subject of the poem comes to him without an axe to grind or a frozen sea to chop up. In Petrified Would he combines the personal and the referential. "Sweet Nothing," the last poem in the section, which opens, "You may take four words with you / cried the Angel of Death," is an excellent example of his humor---and what a way to end the section.
However, his essay, "The Professionalization of Poetry," that follows as a prose coda is the high point of the collection and throws his own work in a context most illuminating. First published in two installments by Poets & Writers Magazine in 2003 (now online at Houston Poetry Review), the essay continues to raise a ruckus. Like Marty Khan's jazz call-to-arms in Straight Ahead, a review of which appeared in Big Bridge last year, Alpaugh pulls no punches and takes no prisoners; he bids his contemporaries to pay closer attention to the exclusionary practices surrounding and exploiting them, practices that also compromise the art.
"He begins by recalling our Big Bang revolutions in verse---"Wordsworth/Coleridge; Whitman; Eliot/Pound; Snyder/Kerouac/ Ginsberg; Lowell/Plath/Sexton"---before he introduces the little whimper of our present devolution: the University of Iowa graduate English Department's 1922 decision that creative writing could be accepted in lieu of the traditional scholarly or critical thesis or dissertation for the MA and PhD. He charts the proliferation of the writing programs, quotes Dana Gioia on the amazing numbers of MFA graduates and remarks, "The profession has created what might be called a complete poetry career path." Dropping enough celebrity names to disturb any invisible poet's itch-scratch cycle, he contrasts the range of careers enjoyed by our modernists (hence their singular voices) with how bards are now educated, supported, published, honored and homogenized.
"A poetry profession that focuses attention almost exclusively on its own rules runs the risk of alienating the common reader and diminishing the art it was established to nurture," he writes at the end of Part One and he's just getting started.
"He opens Part Two diagnosing poetry's increasing prosification (use of pedestrian language), arbitrary lineation, defictionalization (the poet's navel lint disguised as literary merit), a self-referential rhetorical address and a lack of consensus on what constitutes a prose poem as signs of trouble. Of course, Alpaugh has already demonstrated the difference between prose and poetry, having moved us as only verse can in the first three sections of the book! Now he pulls our coats to the fall-out: when no one can define what makes it poetry or prose, then Hades knows, Cole, anything goes: "It's the profession's way of redefining the art downward to accommodate its talent pool." Said another way, in terms of grant$ and grunts, awards and honors, positions and tenure, grip-grope-'n'-gripe, all the good jobs are gone and the hustle is on.
"With great aplomb Alpaugh satirizes what he calls "po-biz" and how it can compromise one's po-ethics. When an inspired sense of service to a community becomes best expressed as advancing one's own career, he implies, we have lost the forest for the publish-or-perish paper mill. He ends by recalling that the 2,500 year-old-tradition of poetry we have inherited has been produced almost exclusively by non-professional "amateurs" who were not in on the gravy train. His best answer to the challenge of his essay is the poetry of Heavy Lifting itself, the musical ring of which stays in the ear long after the words have gone."
[edited / from earlier blog listing, this time with links...]
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...