By Vincent Spina
(Pecan Grove Press, 111 pp.)
With poetry more than prose, sometimes you set it down and come back later. Like challenging new music, some poems can be too much to absorb at first.
So it was for me with at least the initial couple sections of Vincent Spina's Outer Borough. To say that some of the work resembles pure music is not to slight the content. But you can understand "That Party I Saw Your Thinning Hair" to be about aging and still find a passage like the following to intoxicate with rhythm before it does anything else: "My stranger,"
half remembered, half invented,
on your incessant beach, spring children
before you, waves and their hulks, warm
and dreaming and born of waves, beyond.
In poetry, of course, the music can be the insight. "The denouement turned out to be pink lemonade ... yet the calm after the storm in the bottle / arrived as scheduled on kitten wings / and we saved it," goes "Retrieved." Baffling language burrows in, unlocks emotions like the knocked notes of a piano. "Essentially," writes Spina in "What We Heard," a poem "goes no place, only / making sounds / just this side or that side / of possible saying ..."
Early sections of Outer Borough contain recurring imagery of picnics, Augusts, autumnal afternoons. There's a sense of life passing, humans on the tide, adrift and buffeted in a giant world -- the mysteries not beneath the surface, but over it, and we below. There's a dual awareness that people matter both infinitely and not at all.
More colloquial sections of the book evoke a Central American sojourn, and hark to memories of Brooklyn, where Spina grew up. While there's a little nostalgia in the Brooklyn poems, Spina, who now teaches at Clarion University, is seldom your man for solace. "Everything on this page is a con / to get you to buy some assurance about life," he writes. Even his empathy is sly. "Father Isaac Jogues," for instance, imagines grade-school nuns' secret envy of the missionary-maiming incisors of the 17th-century Mohawk women they feigned to abhor.
Several poems deal unambiguously with disease, hospitalization and death. Most bracing in its unflinchingly dark humor is "Tumor," a portrait of the cancer as a young artist, incessantly creating: "Tumor can / no longer live within itself, so much has it grown / in love with you."