On Account of Darkness by Joseph Soldati
Reviewed by Ann Tweedy
Finishing Line Press, 2011
29 pages (chapbook)
On Account of Darkness is a powerful book written by a skillful and talented poet. It’s long enough and dense enough that it feels like a full-length book rather than a chapbook. The social justice themes in many of the poems very much resonated with me, and I enjoyed the travels through space and time that these poems engaged me in. Aside from the opening poem, “Lou,” which blew me away, I found that my favorite poems were in the second half of the book. This is not to diminish the first half, which also had some wonderful poems.
Let’s start with “Lou.” “Lou” is a persona poem about Lou Gehrig, the professional baseball player who was afflicted with what came to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Did I mention that I don’t generally care for baseball, especially not baseball that has nothing to do with my home team, the Boston Red Sox? It’s testament to Soldati’s strength as a poet that he made me care about Gehrig not just as a person but as baseball player struggling against the odds of his disease, playing successfully with seventeen untreated fractures, but eventually losing the ability to play: “the shadow of the dugout never so dark/ or the ball field so bright.”
Similarly, I found that several of Soldati’s poems about other countries touched a strong chord in me and transported me to their realms, even when I knew next to nothing about the locations. This again is testament to Soldati’s poetic skill. For instance, “Abidjan Night”–about living in a city in the Ivory Coast–was particularly powerful. In “Abidjan Night,” the American speaker compares himself--and the luxuries he is privy to--to the bleak situation of other Abidjan residents who “sleep on the perilous ground of vacant lots” among other places. He acknowledges powerfully that he and the other residents “share only the darkness” and finally brings us, his readers, along on his escape from the destitution that surrounds him into “the whiter-than-white/ skin of Nicole Kidman” that he views on videotape. Concluding the poem with the seductive image of a movie star (and this other kind of voyeurism) is a brilliant move that makes his readers feel complicit in the unjust disparities he is witnessing, just as the speaker himself intimates feelings of discomfort and complicity.
“Short-Time Alley–Vietnam, 1960-75” and “A Visit to the Slave Dungeons” are two more poems set elsewhere that I found to be quite powerful and which are also touched with themes of complicity. “Short-Time Alley,” about a soldier visiting a prostitute in Vietnam during the war, is a brave poem about a subject that I wouldn’t normally expect to find sympathetic. Again, kudos to Soldati for putting me in the shoes of that soldier who foregoes food, despite intense hunger, for paid sex, wanting “to feel alive” and knowing that he and the men who came to this woman for solace before him “may be dead tomorrow.”
Finally, I highly recommend “Shooting Up,” about taking heroine, and “Hungry Hawks,” a nature poem about hawks desperate for food in the Oregon winter. Both poems it seems to me are about rebirth and it’s important and fitting that they’re situated next to each other in the book. In “Shooting Up” the reader feels the desperation of the addict whose wish–“O let it be infinite/ and forever” feels like a prayer for salvation. The poem ends after the heroine has been injected and the addict blissfully (and frighteningly) settles into “the shudder/ of life to come.” In “Hungry Hawks,” the hawks’ desperation for food in winter feels somehow similar to the addict’s, a disturbing thought in itself. However, instead of experiencing the satisfaction of seeing the hawks sated, we leave them poignantly hungry, though “recall[ing] the rapture/ of blood and salt in the mouth,” an image of remembered (and anticipated) rebirth and of course death.
If there was one poem that left me less than satisfied, it would be “Poet Hussein,” which is about Saddam Hussein’s last days, in which he reportedly wrote poetry. The poem is addressed to Hussein and perhaps for that reason feels accusatory to me in a way that makes me resist the poem and its premise. Political poems are notoriously treacherous terrain, and I praise Soldati’s attempt if not the result in this one case.
In short, “On Account of Darkness,” is a wonderful book and a good read. Go to the Finishing Line Press website and buy it!
--Ann Tweedy is the author of Beleaguered Oases.