A collection of poems published by an author known for his novels is rather a rarity. Bolen’s ballsy, wrenching tales of criminal acts & blue collar tragedies found in the books, Stupid Crimes, Toy Gun, Krekshuns and others have been well received and yet, due to his love of spoken word, a penchant that was beginning to re-emerge in his experimental novel Kaspoit, much of which he performed with musicians and actors when on tour, he has written and rather rapidly brought out this sequence of rampant staccato lyrics with Caitlin Press (2013).
What Shines: The rhythm of these poems, divided into sections on youth, his long term job as a corrections officer, a love sequence and meditations on war, are consistently punchy, sharp, and mostly refuse to squander a syllable. At their best they sock it to you with gumshoe bravado. Whether Bolen’s aim was to strip his narratives of ornament in a metrical sense or whether the stories demand a severe paring down to more mimetically suggest the absence of luxury, the poems, read cumulatively, can be addictive, especially when pattered out loud, with one finger punctuating their rapid-flame pacing, the noun/verb-strings like dynamite fuses: “grease coif armpit stain/snagglepick match tooth” [Everybody]. And he sings with dialogue, as befits a novelist. The most powerful pieces are from the section recounting his days as a parole officer, Bolen’s richest source of material. The longer poem, “Witness Statement” and the poem that follows it, “Alcatrazim” are intense meldings of discourse communities, from the criminal to the witness to the lawyer, and in the latter, the blather of a con who rattles off shit-statements like, “”even willing women couldn’t jolt off the stupid/from your determined suckhole face.” The last poem, “The Somme Wheat Field” is also potent with its facts dashed with emotion and present bashing into the past. The opening line in particular: “The wind does not answer questions/it’s just cold” is a stark dismantling of romantic perceptions. I also like the cover with its titular poisonous smokestacks softened by the veneer of memory.
What Stumbles: Bolen still has much to learn about trusting his ear as a poet. At times, it seems that he thinks a story is made poetic by the simplistic and often mis-heard technique of inversion. Lines like “so agreed to quiet I,” “fraught/for me the moment slightly was” and “Tearburn/pierce the judgment has” sound like Yoda-speak, though the last example rises slightly into a Paul Celan-style resonance through its compound word. Other images such as “closed-off girlfriend” or the “stopped man/striding aside you” are simply confusing while “hope of youth” and “soul desire” are abstract cliches, a slippage much more easily forgiven in a novelist than a poet, who must needs be severe with not only every syllable but with the routing of each weary use of language. The only section in the book I felt could have been Exacto-knifed out or certainly should have had a much more perceptive editor was Attractions..(and what’s with those limping ellipses anyway?). Here, Bolen, in a mode reminiscent of Dennis Lee in Riffs, seeks to jazz out paeans to the subject of his affections, but more often crashes into absurd metaphors that make a mockery out of the speaker’s paramour. I’m not sure if I want to know what the “that look /of melting chickens/awaiting” is but it must be agonizing, nor smell the “brave furious wind/which announces you” but I do know that being told by a man, “your hair is a nest I want to infest” just wouldn’t seduce me in the slightest. The only piece that doesn’t fail for me here is on page 98 which, with its male speaker being “staggered by the beauty” not only of the later “flakes of ice” on his beloved’s sweater but by the earlier “solitary construction sites” merges industrial and human preoccupations in a most poignant way. Bolen just needs time to further hone his poetic hearing and possibly a more careful editor to occasionally put the brakes on his urge to overly complexify his images, thus killing their core.
What it Echoes: Along with the above allusions, how about Jim Christy, Pete Trower, Leroi Jones, Al Purdy, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Lou Reed, Ed Ruscha’s Blue Collar Paintings (1992), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), cherries with nails in them, Miles Davis Birth of the Cool (1957).