Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar reviewed by Robert Knox, author of “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty,” nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award
It’s all in here: childhood, boyish hijinks, early teen trouble-finding, sexual awakening. Then marriage, career, and the time-release-capsule emotions of watching your own children walk that familiar path of daggers. Only now, you’re the one that’s worrying.
What can be revealed in a book of poems about these subjects? More than enough to convince a reader that, just as the volume’s title proclaims, “Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar.”
The long poem “Smokin A Real Cool Brand” tells a confessional story of adolescence and young adulthood through the topos of an addictive habit that typically starts at home. You can’t blame peer pressure when the poet tells us “my grandmother got caught giving me cigarettes” when he was 13. Besides, smokes were only 35 cents from a machine “in the back” of a Chinese restaurant. “JFK smoked,” the poem reminds us. “The Beatles smoked.” Here and in other poems, Powers offers a vivid depiction of life in the second half of the 20th century, when kids hung around sharing a smoke and gossiping about the people in their lives (or the people they wished were in their lives), instead of looking at their phone and planning their career.
But innocence is brief, and mortality makes recurrent appearances in these poems. An unforgettable character sketch, “Rob Smuniewski Is Dead” summons the stab of irrationality we feel when a vital young person is abruptly lost to the living. In this instance it’s an 18-year-old “Who stood on a table in the cafeteria and asked a redhead to the prom”; who said, “I don’t go to school to learn; I go to entertain.” And “who you knew,” the poet-teacher testifies, “even when you wanted to strangle him, couldn’t find/ his own off switch any more than you could…”
Something else, however, could. Life is an end-stage disease. Still, as Powers’ poems suggest, we rely on the familiar.
The short, impactful lyric “After the Funeral” reminds us that burying a loved one is not in fact the end of things; then you have to bury their books. That act can be a religious ritual as well. The poem imagines a used book buyer “running a nail/ along a line of text/ lips moving in a whisper/ the spines cracked like hymnals.”
While some poems focus on the poet’s own youth, others nourish our appreciation for the complicated joys of raising a family. In a poem provocatively entitled “Do Not Resuscitate,” a woman in a walk-in clinic to which the poet has brought his son crosses a room with “blood leaking through her stockings.”
Her message to the dad-poet: “Enjoy it… They grow up fast.”
And sometimes they don’t, as we learn by the poet’s searing account of a miscarriage (“Carry/Miscarry”), including his search for a Tupperware container, and ladle to carry the fetus to the doctor.
In another family poem, “Donny One Note” — family being the through-story here — the poet finds a signature key for his father in his lifelong love of singing the old songs and holding that last note. We should not be surprised, perhaps, when the poem tells us it’s a grandchild who rescues his grandparents’ photos and catalogues them.
These poems are all about holding that note of continuity and connection. The more poems you dig into in “Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar,” the more they dig into you.
In a poem called “He Couldn’t Remember,” a man can’t recall what made him go upstairs. But a shaft of afternoon light leads to the recollection of a long-ago museum visit “while standing hand-in-hand with a black-haired, soft-faced beauty who might once have been his wife.”
She’s still his wife, the poem implies, but everything else is in the past.
Along with the vagaries of memory, humor is a tool the poet relies on to unlock the truths of time. In “How to Talk to Old People,” his attempt to provoke a response from his bed-ridden mother with provocative questions such as “Are the aides beating you?” finally draws a sharp-eyed response. “You going to dye your hair?”
“Put Down This Poem and Call Your Mother,” a classic 14-liner makes the case for keeping the people close to you more than vaguely familiar. The poem’s telling personal details include this snapshot of his mother’s cherishing of “sightings of long forgotten neighbors/ at the mall, her thin fingers twirling the chord we’d never fully cut.”
The fundamental bonds we make in this life are never fully cut, Powers tells us in “Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar.” Just as those long-ago neighbors sighted in the mall are never wholly forgotten.
“Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar,” by Jack Powers. Published by Golden Antelope Press, 2018.