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Bending the Notes

The term “accessible” has had its fair usage in poetry reviews, and I’ll use it here to describe Paul Hostovsky‘s Bending the Notes, a selection for the Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Poetry Series. Hostovsky‘s poems require no specialized knowledge of literary tradition or poetics. Set against the working-class suburbs of Boston, a milieu of duplexes and bowling alleys, populated by aggressive drivers and girls named “Cece Santucci,” these poems speak of parenting, childhood, love, and writing. Hostovsky‘s diction is colloquial and his tone, intimate. Often narrative, his lines unfold meditatively and lyrically to empathetic moments that illustrate commonplace, human struggles. One can see why poems from this collection with their abundance of emotional forthrightness were featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.

The term “accessible” has had its fair usage in poetry reviews, and I’ll use it here to describe Paul Hostovsky‘s Bending the Notes, a selection for the Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Poetry Series. Hostovsky‘s poems require no specialized knowledge of literary tradition or poetics. Set against the working-class suburbs of Boston, a milieu of duplexes and bowling alleys, populated by aggressive drivers and girls named “Cece Santucci,” these poems speak of parenting, childhood, love, and writing. Hostovsky‘s diction is colloquial and his tone, intimate. Often narrative, his lines unfold meditatively and lyrically to empathetic moments that illustrate commonplace, human struggles. One can see why poems from this collection with their abundance of emotional forthrightness were featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.

Hostovsky quests to find triumph in the quotidian. He invites readers into his poems with realistic scenes, and lets his associative train of thought take over, trusting that we will relish the details as much as he does. For example, “Mr. Putnam Clark Positions the Sprinkler” begins:

I love to watch my neighbor as he works
on his lawn as I work on my poems
on my porch, making these connections I imagine
do not occur to him, but wanting to show him
how his own balding head for example
reminds me of my lawn with its big bare patch
in the middle where nothing much grows

After comparing the sprinkler stream to “strings of a lyre,” the poem concludes as a conceit for writing poetry:

my neighbor and I
making these tiny adjustments, covering as much
ground as needs to be covered, looking around and seeing
each other now, waving, acknowledging the other’s
labor, me admiring his perfect lawn, and maybe
if I showed him, he would admire how the lizard
tongue of my poem has snatched him up
and swallowed him whole, and spit him out again
transmogrified, digested and converted into something
he may not recognize though it resembles him.

Though this poem conveys contentment and imaginative whimsy, there are others of separation and loss, such as “Best Asleep,” a poem that illustrates a communicative gap between two lovers.

When he said he loved her best asleep he meant
the grammar of her face—all its tenses,
the never-ending story—how it trailed off into
an ellipses as she dozed…

The speaker’s stuttered explanation sparks his lover’s ire:

           Didn’t he
mean he preferred her silent, thoughtless, blank
as a blank page, so that he could write the story
of who she was, or ought to be? And didn’t he think
that loving her best asleep was like wishing her dead?

Narrative poems can be a tricky proposition: language becomes too “prosey”; lines are mired in too many details for the sake of verisimilitude; verbs are diluted with adverbs. Too much tell, not enough show, and the reader’s imagination is kept at bay. For the most part, though, Hostovsky‘s poems succeed, and those that feature fresh associations and surprising or ambiguous endings invite re-readings. A poem that accomplishes this invitation is “Still”:

When there’s nothing else to say there is still
this to say, still there is this like a
birdbath in someone’s yard in your
childhood, not your birdbath or your yard
and no birds now, or rainwater yet, just this
palm, this listening for the rain, this memory
of waiting place made of stone [. . .]
When there’s nothing to say there is still
this asking, this open upturned face, this mouth
waiting to collect the first few drops,
this hopeful, trembling tongue

Despite depictions of divorce, single parenting, and lost love, Hostovsky‘s collection ultimately resounds with notes of endurance and resolve. Though the lyric “I” is present in poem after poem, it is not self-absorbed. His work is generous in the sense that he articulates the intimate, the sentimental, the vulnerable, all tempered by a self-deprecating humor, not as a form of self-expression, rather as a form of communion.

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