NIGHT & DAY
P. J. Laska
146 pages, $18.50
Vincent Ferrini introduced me to P. J. Laska in the late 1970’s. I was living in Athens County, Ohio and he was a native West Virginian who had recently reviewed Ferrini’s opus Know Fish.. We corresponded for several years with the occasional talk on the telephone until his work as a social worker in the rundown coal towns brought him to Boston for a conference. By then, I had moved to Bedford, New Hampshire, so I picked him up and housed him for a few days before depositing him in Gloucester, Massachusetts for a visit with Ferrini. We have been friends ever since, working on many projects over the years. My own Igneus Press published his The Day The Eighties Began in 1991. Several of those poems are included in this collection, which spans some 35 years of his writings. NIGHT & DAY is a glimpse of his evolution over that time period, as well as an anthropological study of the times, the politics, the struggles, and the ever-evolving nature of man and consciousness. A few chosen lines from the entry poem titled THE DAY THE EIGHTIES BEGAN exemplifies.
It was the day clouds hung over the downtown
like florescent lights in hospital waiting rooms
It was the day the President winked and joked as he used two
hundred gold-tipped pens to sign de-regulating Savings
& Loans Banks
It was the day a crazy woman painted herself green and stood
naked at the intersection
It was the day when things could be seen very clearly in the distance.
THE KENT STATE MONUMENTS is a reminder of the history in which his and my generation were immersed throughout the Viet Nam war and gives the sense of ultimate militarily-enforced, corporate oligarchy that was forming as Ike had warned. Kent State seemed such an unlikely third part to our academic Holy Trinity of Insight, joining Berkeley and Columbia. This pastoral state university in the Heartland built in a cornfield and hosting sons and daughters of farmers and trades people became totally politicized by the gunshots of the National Guard that killed and injured those exercising their right to free speech. Later that night the students burnt down the ROTC building and the ante was raised. Neil Young kept the drama alive in his song “Four Dead in Ohio.”
Laska’s first section, I. ANTI-LYRIC, pokes great fun at our human condition. We spend a wild night with Geronimo, pay a visit to a café, then, hear crowing about academia.
AT THE NARCISSIST CAFÉ
Bold and unsharing
the urban sparrow
under the table
covets the too big
crust of bread
The collegial crows
keep their distance
each to his own tree
The second section, II. DIVINING THE PAST, is permeated with the landscape of Appalachia, the smell of coal smoke, the wild flowers, the broken down downtowns, the women who formed his desires, and the smoked-filled life of restaurants serving mediocre cuisine back before the days of “fine dining.”
APPALACHIAN FOG MUSIC
Bassoons in the hardwoods
Oboes in the pines
Cellos in the hollows
Kettledrums in the mines
Laska’s widow poems, often “step tales” told by the widows of dead miners, are poems plucked from his stint as a social worker in Appalachia. These works strike a delicate balance between an intelligent wisdom and an ear tuned to hear the actual music of the Appalachian words and dialect. Laska has the self-discipline to use his intellect only as tool, which allows the widows to do the speaking.
Two stanzas from his ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT succinctly describe the Archpoet, Bob Snyder
stopping at the herm of the Mason-Dixon Line
to confess his last vision and verse
I cannot abide the grubby capitalist for thanks
to him the price is up on every bottle of cheap wine
In the 90’s Laska joined up with Joe Barrett and Bob Snyder to form the Mason Dixon Trio, a poetic Bluegrass jug band. They put together a collection distributed by Soupbean Press Old Martins, New Strings, a wonderful mix of the pensive, philosophic Laska, the poet’s poet Barrett , and the romantic, comedic poet Snyder. After the deaths of Barrett and Snyder, Laska formed another book by the Trio put out by Igneus titled Mason Dixon Sutra. Several poems from those books are sprinkled into NIGHT & DAY .
Make no mistake, Laska is no regionalist. His work reaches back to the Tao and into the pop art of road signs. The only possible streams one can put Laska’s work into is the Whitmanic, which would include Hart Crane, sometimes Dr. Williams, and certainly Henry Miller, and the leftist dissident stream which would include the origins of Ferrini’s roots in the 1930’s in Lynn, Massachusetts, working at the GE factory. His overview and intelligence make him so much more than a generational poet. One thing both Laska and I learned from our mutual friend of many years, Ferrini, is that we are not just writing to our generation, but to our children’s generation and their children also. Ferrini outlived and outlasted most of his detractors in his own generation and was met with open arms by following generations. This is a lesson many contemporary poets have yet to learn.
The last section, III. THE ABBOTT AND SATIVA, are magnificent sequences of experimental writing. At times it takes on the appearance of a polemic, at other times the feel of pure Greek Dialogue. It is a word play, showing how language can be used as a runway to consciousness versus artifact. Its microcosms are portholes to the universe. In BREAKFAST WITH UNCLE LAO, we, along with the Abbott and Sativa, get to discuss the word “virtue” and whether it is “dead” or whether “words have an immortal soul?”
I love how the theme of food, be it snack or an entire meal, seems to be a central theme. In the TALKING CAT, the Abbott argues with the cat over its food fussiness by saying, “See what a little bit of civilization has done to you.” There is also an intimacy in these dialogues approaching the sensuality of true open-mindedness and succinctly described in THE ABBOTT TO SATIVA.
Talking to you is like taking
So you say now, she replied, but
how will it look in the morning?
After having breakfast with Uncle Lao, it makes perfect sense that the Abbott takes part in
SMOKING WITH LI PO.
and we commune with the Dao
And we roll on the floor laughing.
A DIALOGUE ON THE SOUL is a conversational vignette, again set around a meal. In his most compassionate way Laska takes on the old question handed down from Socrates as his final dialogue. He hints at the marvelous world of non-design and the open nature of consciousness. He implores Dr. Paradisio to plunge deeper into the questions and nature of being, past the inherited paradigms.
I think this collection NIGHT & DAY is an essential book. Laska has never pandered to the American poetry scene or the times. He is a genuine thinker with an ear to the railroad tie about the joys and heartbreaks of living these past 70 years. His poems and ideas are formed organically, not constructs, like so much of contemporary poetry seems to prefer. Instead they pay attention to the human ear, eye and pace. That such an intelligent and empathetic man can write such clear, concise words in the measure of the true breath is what keeps Laska and his work very interesting, important and visionary. My only squawk would be no table of contents, to balance this review.
William Kemmett, another of a handful of poets I take seriously, wrote the following poem about this work of Laska’s.
“this philosopher Knows
the dust of the coal mines
like a black & white
movie tells it like it is
Some things cannot be told
in color, NIGHT & DAY
will have you choking back
the tears of old Appalachia
through the eyes of Someone
who was & still is there.”
Publisher, Igneus Press