Poetry is one fuck of a tough genre to wade around in. I don’t really know anyone who’s “kind of” into it. You either love poetry or view it as something akin to Avian Flu and avoid it at all costs. One of the main reasons, I assume, is because it’s so difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; there’s just so much shitty, god-awful poetry out there. Then if you take it a step further, like James Tracy has done with Sparks and Codes, and release a book of inherently political poems? It’s pretty understandable if a lot of people take the old duck and cover, “No thanks, I just read television” defense position.
The thing is, they shouldn’t. There’s actually some pretty good stuff scattered throughout this one. Granted, I’ve strayed pretty far from even the basest working knowledge of which poets seem to be putting out good work these days—my days of submitting poems to small press mags ended about ten years ago—but the last poet I can think of who really nailed down a poem that had “political” overtones but a deeply rooted personal foundation was Wendy O-Matik. Like the best personal zines and political bands, she managed to seamlessly and explosively fuse worldly themes with everyday life in a way that was inclusive, furious, and flat-out beautiful.
While O-Matik’s work was dense, lyrical, and confessional, Tracy, while still pissed, instead uses allegories and metaphors to document his sense of frustration over world events and particular modes of thought, which is fine, but I kept waiting for his sense of flat-out rage and helplessness to catch up with his obvious knack for rhythm, repetition, and use of imagery. That’s when he seems to be at his best, and I’d say it happens in about half of the work in Sparks and Codes; in “Skinhead,” he writes that “when his mouth opened it was like a shower-head / in a concentration camp,” and later closes it with “when his fists pumped / they moved as if his Irish weren’t immigrants too.” There’s a fury there that’s well-aimed and precise: in just a few words he’s able to point out the inherent hypocrisy of much of skinhead culture and gives us an image that’s brutal, that puts us right there in the poem. It’s nice work; I just wish that it happened more often, but it seems to get diluted by his sense of restraint a few too many times here—it dulls the momentum.
My favorite poem in the collection is “Fascism Is as Fascism Does” because it’s here where Tracy seems to have done the cleanest job of merging his sense of metaphor and rhythm with that fist-clenched frustration that, to me, is about the only thing that makes political poems any good at all. When he writes, “Maybe poems can’t call fascists but they can kill / fascism / if they can make freedom / mean something more / than I got mine at the expense of yours, / or expose collateral damage / to mean a whole bunch of dead people,” that’s what I’m looking for. That’s when it works. And when he writes “Woodie Guthrie’s honest hope what that his grand / machine-a guitar / could kill a fascist but no folk song could ever do this. / (Poetry has even worse aim.),” the fact that he’s fully aware of how limiting poetry can sometimes be is so goddamn refreshing to read. So, yeah, there are moments here that are really good, but Tracy never seems to get out of himself and start pulling the ripcord on the chainsaw for very long, which is too bad because when he does, it’s a great read. –Keith Rosson (Civil Defense Poetry, 2202 Bryant St., SF, CA 94110)