That a renowned editor and chief at a famous publishing house (Jonathan Galassi, Farrar Strauss & Giroux) should come out of the closet in middle age and be the subject of an article in The New York Times seems pretty odd in this day and age – particularly when the piece reads like a gossip column concerning, among other things, his supposed affair with literary agent/superstar/crack addict Bill Clegg (a picture of whom accompanies the article).  Galassi was married to a woman and had kids before all this happened and it was a torturous break up, all of which his new book of poems, Left-handed – the article goes on to say – delves into, in part.

His book – as Galassi says – is all about him, which is what actually makes it quite tender, even when some of the language and feeling here can verge on the sentimental and occasionally read the way a lot of light poetry reads – or, even like some occasional poetry – the occasion here being that he is now living the life he has wanted to live for a long time.

Here’s the beginning of “The New Life”:

Jude, the new life
starts today, time
to put your jacket
on.  Time to put
the past away and
venture out of
hurt and stress
into courage, calm,
and tenderness.”

Jude is, apparently, Bill Clegg (again, according to the Times), and, while the poem takes a while to get going, it’s very moving in a quiet way – a kind of love letter to a man, but also to action itself.  While there are other poems here that are full of heart and a kind of somewhat bewildered wisdom borne of age and wrong-headedness, the left hand – let’s call it the writing hand – feels a bit manicured, holding something a bit too precious when (given the ambiguity of subject matter) – it might be holding something more complex.  Some of the poems read like simplified versions of the psyche to make them more accessible – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a less interesting approach to subject matter.

The book is well meaning and there’s a strong lyrical voice behind everything written down here, and the only real place I did find a diminishment in poetic feeling and intent was when a sense of privilege snuck in.  Whenever that happened, the book’s tribute-like acknowledgement of the new life got undermined. Here’s the entire “Freedom”:

They can cancel every flight
as long as I get to watch you
read your brief.
They can run out of chicken
stuffed with shrimp if I
can slurp my soup with you
and sit through the worst
movies ever made with my
hand where it doesn’t belong.
It’s dark here, sweets,
no one will know, we’re free.
Let them overcharge us for the dinner.
Let them lose our bags
and try to reroute us.
Where we are, we’re airborne.

The poem is off-putting and coy and that sense of privilege, again, only makes it decorous and not necessarily more poignant.  And, while I still feel this book could have been stronger for subject matter that is so personal, Galassi does have wonderful sense of the line, of cadence and a real recognition of beauty not only in the natural world, but in his private world as well.

 

Left-handed
By Jonathan Galassi
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 9780307957085, 111 pp.
April 2012



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  • Ron Fritsch

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