Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review of Rob Abbate's "Courage of Straw"

Review of Courage of Straw
by Robert Abbate
Main Street Rag, 2010, 90 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482354

In The Wizard of Oz, the Straw Man needed a brain, but he didn’t lack what the others did, the Tin Man’s heart, the Lion’s courage. It is the presence of these things that embodies the speaker of Robert Abbate’s poems in his new collection, Courage of Straw, and by implication it is the presence of a heart that feels and a courage that confronts that enables us to experience life as fully-realized human beings.

These are not easy poems. Not that they are difficult to understand -- they are, in fact, quite accessible -- but they are difficult, or perhaps painful would be a better adjective, to accept, to synthesize. If a successful poem is one that has a palpable effect on the reader, then the discomfort and subsequent catharsis these poems inspire mark them as successful. If a successful poem is one that changes the reader, then the ability to empathize that these poems create or at least enhance mark them as successful. If a successful poem is one that engages with the entire spectrum of human experience and utterance, then the historical, philosophical, and spiritual contexts of these poems mark them as successful.

Woven throughout these poems are references and allusions to Dante’s Inferno, a fact which asks us to consider the ways in which contemporary violence make our world like that Dante imagined below. The pains explored here range from suicide attempts to institutionalized corporal punishment: “My meeting with Jesus / is the birch rod pronouncing / its tearful percussion, when needed” (“As Needed”); from electroshock therapy to the story of a boy being sodomized: “the boy stood apart from his body, he . . . / could see himself bent forward, / survival’s mask frozen on his face” (“Tree-Fort Tale”); from the pastoral molestation of children to terrorist attacks: “What comfort, what comfort was there to find / when I realized the children may have wakened / to trapped moments of screaming engulfment?” (“Song of the Three Young Men”); from the inhumane treatment of laborers to the inhuman, nearly unimaginable torture and execution of Matthew Shepard:

the Gay Shepard boy
pleads for his life,
and executioners pound
his marred head beyond
any human semblance.

Abbate boldly goes where poets often fear to tread and where we all need to go if we will ever understand and through understanding move closer to prevention. Out of this journey into the heart of human unkindness and the resultant human suffering, Abbate creates a book-length existential metaphor unlike any I’ve encountered before and perhaps best stated in his title poem: “No greater love has straw than / to be flailed of life for hay.”

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