He Will Laugh
by Douglas Ray
Don’t be deceived by this debut collection’s eye-catching cover of prismatic rainbows and floral shapes or its title; He Will Laugh by Douglas Ray is no laughing matter. The collection delineates a somber and passionate romance between two men, beginning at the end of the relationship, when one of the partners commits suicide. The opening poem, an eloquent elegy titled “November 8” after a Roman festival for the gods of Hades, sets the tone:
Harvest fruits were offered them.
You are their fruit, Isaac, having anointed yourself
by plucking your breath, this world’s offering
for the shades.
The following three sections of the book (“Now,” “Then,” and “Time Unredeemable”) recount the relationship. In “Now” the speaker sifts through the aftermath of the suicide, employing various forms, including free verse, tercets with lines short and long, and prose poems. In the first poem of the section, “Get That in Writing,” the speaker scrolls through an online newspaper, constantly refreshing the page until he finds his ex-lover’s obituary. He is stricken by grief with a cynical bite: “Funeral arrangements have yet to be made. No picture, just ads flashing at all sides of the screen—hot young singles, first five minutes free. ”
“Then” reminisces about the couple’s romance from beginning to end. This section contains a fractured crown of sonnets in a range of styles that embody the lovers’ desires and raw passions in a traditionally romantic form. Here the reader is greeted with an unexpected casual frankness, such as is seen in the volta of “Upon Return, a Routine”:
I’ll fuck you like a tramp because I know
you fancy yourself a trashy, high-dolla’ ho.
The last section of the book, “Time Unredeemable,” is one long, four-page poem that is Proustian in theme, although its title is antithetical to Proust’s Time Regained.
But the score reminds Gould
like God or conscience,
he must play on, begin
again—aria da capo al fine.
If only we could begin
again. You could raise yourself . . ..
He rescues his poems from blatant and unfounded sentiment, as illustrated in lines like these from “You say, I’ll talk to you later, dear”:
Then nothing but the bright silence and the camellias outside in
bloomed gem tones—tourmaline, pearl, padparascha sapphire
arrayed against emerald leaves, onyx shadow. Fuck the heart:
distance makes the dick grow harder.
This debut collection is impressive in its assortment of conventional and contemporary poetic forms, its universal subject matter, and its range of references. Readers will find ancient Rome, biblical Jacob, John Waters, Bach, Barbara Streisand, and much more woven into the narrative of these well-crafted and moving poems.
Released as the 2012 election year ramps up, Charles Jensen's chapbook The Nanopedia Quick-Reference Pocket Lexicon of Contemporary American Culture brings various political and cultural topics to the fore through well-crafted prose poems. No one poem exceeds a single page, and they are often constructed with short sentences, taking on a sound-byte form. With titles such as “Assisted Suicide,” “Economic Bailout,” and “Gerrymandering,” the poems deal with heated contemporary issues through a poet’s sensibility. In “Second Amendment,” Jensen writes: “The God-given right is not to take life, but to trade something of the self for the ammunition the body receives.”
In “Manifest Destiny,” Jensen reveals his distress over how far US expansion has gone, commenting on the American mindset: “We are here; we are there. . . . We invented the camera. Right now, we are watching you.”
This isn’t to say that these twenty poems shy away from the personal. Jensen captures personal experience while simultaneously grinding his cultural ax in “Power Ballad.” Early in the poem, he writes, “Karaoke caterwauls have slain the corpses of our adult life’s pop history until we crunch this gravel beneath our shoes, pinwheeling toward the parked car.” The poem eventually bleeds into a reflective and tender moment; “The air has only two dimensions but we pass through it like a series of still photographs.”
Additionally, the book offers some playful insights. In “Frenemies,” Jensen personifies Tragedy and Comedy and observes, “everybody loves a loose Tragedy, but Comedy doesn’t get near enough play.”
Jensen’s chapbook amends our traditional notions of Americana; it strikes against the banal in our political, cultural, and artistic lives through refined and condensed prose poetics. As he puts it in the single-lined poem “Modern Art”: “Absence is a bomb that detonates inward.”