BY Jack Remick
Coffeetown Press 2014
Paper, 146 pp., $11.95
REVIEWED BY THOMAS HUBBARD
Early summer — standing beside old U.S. Highway 40, in the late 1950s before the interstates were built, my faded black sweatshirt and Levi’s showing a couple days of road dirt, my duffle bag on the ground, I felt that familiar “click” of contact with an approaching car and knew it was my next ride. It stopped and the back door opened as I caught up, breathless from running with the duffle, and I answered that same old “Where ya headed?”
“San Francisco. How far ya goin?”
“Hop in. We can take you a ways.” A family — dad, mom, boy twelve or so, girl younger. Guarded while feeling me out, then lots of questions. Over the course of our conversation I tried explaining my reasons for the trip. Ended up giving them the worn copy of Kerouac’s On the Road in my hip pocket. Gotta wonder what finally happened to that book.
Turns out Jack Remick was headed in the same direction then, figuratively. Headed for San Francisco, because that’s where poetry had lately risen up, shedding off the skin of European references, the old formal rules, and risen from the sweat and push of blues, jazz, bop and the general restlessness of a post-war America that felt as though it had just straightened out the world. The feeling of national omnipotence was beginning to hollow out, but the poetry was burgeoning. And now, Satori falls into my hand at a reading in Seattle. Kerouac and Ginsberg have left us, and Ferlinghetti is ninety-six, but a few old-school beat poets like Jack Remick continue.
Opening Jack Remick’s Satori, I discovered an old Seattle friend of mine in the first poem, “Breathless.” A non-rhyming poem of open format, it presents an overview of Remick’s frustrated pursuit of his muse, and then tells of his first meeting with the late Irene Drennan, a member the “Seattle Five Plus One” poetry performance group.
…She was the chanting black-eyed demon
of a hundred coffeehouses
her lips scorching microphones with mating music
I knew her in black tights
twitching down Grant Avenue —
she was the incarnation, the sweet
sweaty dream of beatitude…
That reference to Irene Drennan rang so true. Satori had me. Remick has organized this collection in seven parts, plus a postscript and notes. “Breathless,” above, opens the first section, titled “Anabasis.” Perhaps worth noting is the word’s original meaning: (from Greek ana = “upward,” bainein = “to step or march”) “…an expedition from a coastline up into the interior of a country,” according to Wikipedia. In other words, a military assault, “…as that of the younger Cyrus into Asia in 401 BC, as narrated by Xenophon in his work Anabasis.” “A military advance,” according to New Oxford American Dictionary. The title bespeaks Remick’s own lifelong assault on poetry, and the connection becomes clearer as one reads.
In “Anabasis,” Remick recalls his time living in “The City of Saint Francis,” then goes on with salutes and elegies to poets he admires, including Jimi Hendrix. And in “Painted Interior,” about his relation with / to his muse over the years, he includes the telling line, “One generation’s poetry the next can’t grasp.” This is true of most generations of poetry, including beat poetry, in-sofar as the general reading population of today is concerned. But the finest of any generation — including some of Remick’s work herein —calls out to serious readers among the next and subsequent generations: Many readers of poetry still understand and enjoy Beowulf.
The second section, titled “The Body: Twelve Sonnets with a Lament and Lovdeth,” delivers a dozen pieces, sonnets touching on sensual love. Form purists may complain about some of the rhyme schemes, but none can question their beauty. Beyond that, this reviewer won’t venture.
Satori’s third section, “Josie Delgado, A Poem of the Central Valley,” is a gem worthy of publication by itself. Remick poetically chronicles his early love with a young Latina. Reading through these poems of the heart sheds a strong light on the whole book. Beginning with “Saturday Night,” describing his work in the fruit harvest of California’s Central Valley alongside migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, he tells of saving hard-earned dollars to spend dating Josie: “…I pull down a buck and a quarter an hour / to buy Josie’s love on Saturday nite.”
Those of us who have worked a harvest will surely remember the ache and sweat, reading this poem’s fourth stanza about Glen Minter’s peach orchard:
I work the peaches to earn Josie Delgado dollars dollars measured against a stack of peach picks, dollars measured against an orchard tractor piled high dollars measured against the sweat of Mexican pickers who work the trees on ladders pluck pink gold from branches bending rich, scarves cinched around their necks to keep the peach fuzz from driving them nuts.
Anyone who reads this section, who rides along in the young Remick’s souped-up Ford, who braves Josie’s pachuco brother, who lives through that final rainy night with dry eyes, needs to read it again. And again.
Remick follows his “Josie” section with “The Okie Chronicle, Fathers and Sons.” He doesn’t doesn’t tell, he shows how his poetry split his father from him, leaving silence when he told the old man about writing poems. Those men who write after childhood in a blue-collar house will see themselves in this mirror bearing Remick’s image. And they will find a bit of vindication.
The father and grandfather of this section were the kind of men who became heroes and died early. Deeds like the grandfather’s — mule-skinning in lead mines, machine-gunning in tanks; deeds like the father’s — boring holes through mountains, building huge dams — these are compared to deeds of a poet, who likely lives and dies without much daring-do, in obscurity. But the poet, as Remick concludes in the poem, “My Father,” has destroyed nothing of nature, while the father-heroes have “ravaged the mother.”
…How do we tell them that Building America The Great The Unholy The Empty The Only The Pure The True. Building America They Ravaged the Mother? How do we explain that to the birds?
The two shorter sections following, titled “Journeys,” and “The Savage God,” present a degree of hyperbole characteristic of many beat poets. The poems speak of birth, of journeys through childhood as his father’s son, of aging, and of facing death. They describe allegorical tortures and sufferings beyond the capacity of humans. The first lines in “Death Waits,” a poem mixing sex and death, say,
Death waits at the corner an old woman for the light. She eats in a trolley-car diner knife in her left hand, fork in her right. I sit beside her — fried chicken mash potatoes green peas corn on my plate. She picks at a piece of pecan pie stacked whipped cream. Book in hand Death opens my page… The “old woman” tells him, after a litany of his sins and excesses and expectations of exception, “You are mine. From the moment of your first breath until you break.”
And in “Coyote,”
…I hear coyote talk upon the ridge telling kids tales of shotguns and poisoned meat and foot traps…
Sex, birth and death continue to rule as Satori glides into the sixth section, “The Savage God.” The section’s title poem chronicles a young Remick walking through California’s Central Valley fourteen hot summer miles to his father’s house to collapse with blistered feet. He has come home broke, with no job.
…and now in my father’s house I lay me down in warm sheets, white shroud, and I dream of death, I dream of the dead I am become death, the changer of souls the eater of men… When I wake, my feet are broken blisters in the mirror I am ancient…
In the poems of this section, we see Remick feeling small, diminutive beside everything else. And finally, in the last section titled “The Mythic Wave,” comes religious testimony harkening to evangelic tent meetings, a poetic retelling of the story of Odysseus’s return to Penelope, a poem touching figuratively on insane cannibalism, and, to close, “The Codicil,” a brief promise of new beginnings.
In “Postcript,” Remick steps down into conversational language to tell of his meeting Lawrence Ferlinghetti “… in City Lights Bookstore when I was eighteen,” and he explains how he came to poetry. He follows it with “Notes,” supplying descriptive introductions to the main influences of his life as a writer.
Here is a book for your reference shelf, sketching the bridge between the poetry you might hear at the Seattle Slam, and what you read as an undergraduate (or possibly as a student in some American MFA program for writers). For writing poetry or writing about poetry, or appreciating either, you will visit and revisit Satori.