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In “Broken Kingdom,” a poem from Peter Covino’s collection of poems, The Right Place to Jump, Covino ends with the phrase “And all this inconvenient/ Misdirected panic.” Panic, indeed seems to haunt this collection, which restlessly covers a range of “inconvenient” experiences. From the nearness of a “psychic breakdown” in “66 Trees,” which looks at the mortal events in a poet’s life from the fading health of a friend to a suicide of another, and to the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini by “a gang of gay pickups,” the speaker agitatedly closes the poem with “I probably need a new boyfriend.” In this poem he admits to us that “I’m left with a huge hole and writing/seems worthless,”. Fortunately for us, Covino escapes his dark demons, but always with a breathless rush of images, his poetic eye jumping from one thought to another, from dream to reality and reality to dream.
These collisions of the offhand with autobiographical details from the speaker’s life make for a brash nervousness, a restless staccato. In the poem “Such a Drag to Want Something Sometime” Covino takes us back to 1984, when dressed for Halloween as the Pretenders in a punk rock outfit, he goes to a fraternity party. He tells us:
. . . I’m just back
from a summer backpacking
through Europe where I’ve discovered Gucci,
Sun-In, and bisexuality with a vengeance.
With this newly-affected
Euro-trash accent, I’m determined to sleep with anyone
who’s breathing:. .
Sex presents itself nervously throughout this collection. In “Visit to San Francisco” the speaker tells us:
I’m trying not to hate myself—
last night at the Eros, $15 worth
of flesh and unreliable fantasy.
Fueled by a six-pack and the almostness
of an underage conservatory student,
I’ve ended up, here, as the night before,
wanting titillation, something close to milk
and love, but easier and anonymous—
the surge and response, a blanketing stream.
Sometimes it’s the conversation,
scavenge of remains, or the obligatory
questions about positions and ethnicity.
I have traded the burnt tobacco fields
and oleander, the well-illumined necropolis
at the edge of my city, for these ten minutes
of stooped-over bliss.
And in another poem, “Bad Trick” the speaker starts out with:
No laws of attraction mandated
By the Supreme Being apply here—
In this tawdry porn-filled leather bar
On the abandoned outskirts of town.
Here is the “Lick-It Lounge” with its queer karaoke and its “no-butt dude with the over-Botoxed face.” “Where’s that lanky, love-toy/Lacross player I was promised?” the poet asks.
As Marjorie Perloff suggests, Covino is a Frank O’Hara for the post 9/11 decade. These poems are conversational in feel, jagged and with references to figures both from high and low culture. A beautiful lyric poem such as “Sri Lanka” with a reference to Paul Celan and that poet’s death in the Seine river has the most elevated language. It opens with:
when the heart swells
can He still speak through us
cornered death knell
of the other side
heaven in an earthbound
Contrast this with “Tell it To My Heart” a delightfully witty pop cultural poem dedicated to Taylor Dayne. The poet writes:
You were barely
in grammar school, Britney Spears! not even
a Mickey Mouse clubber yet, in 1989,
when Taylor’s megahit ballad “Love Will
Lead You Back” to my arms, I know my love
will lead you back topped the charts
for a steady six weeks, just in time
for the summer wedding rush.
Here as well we have a mischievous nod to O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” as the speaker finds himself standing outside Penn Station next to the pop star, Dayne. He writes:
She was standing this close to me
& thanked me for recognizing her,
right in front of Penn Station
with two bodyguards on a Tuesday,
2:45 in the afternoon.
O’Hara’s humor and satire are also part of Covino’s style. In “Millennial Wyoming in Unpopular Imagination, with Codeine.” The poem opens:
Until the day after minor surgery, he believed
most of Wyoming was a factory specializing
in night-lights and bars of soap decorated with
images of bucking broncos or upright prairie dogs.
With its surreal imagery Covino transforms the hospital room in Salt Lake City—the “soul of Zion”— into a spoof of Western iconography.
Whether speaking of the painter Malevich or the food writer MFK Fisher, Covino has a wonderful way of mirroring in style and language his subject. Of the abstract painter, Malevich, Covino writes:
everything’s framed by looking: a visual pattern a rhythm: a visual
elemental language reconstitutes shapes then disintegrates nothing
is added in 5.—movements re-form into a ball an oppressive
unbalanced heavy cross—
And in the Fisher poem he includes the recipe for Oyster Stew, giving us a witty history of the oyster.
Covino can also be pensive and beautiful in his language in a poem such as “The Weight of Water” which speaks of Heidegger and a morning swim in a lake and transforms into a love lyric:
your imprint in the bed as you trudge off to make coffee, the alarm
waking and not waking us. Remarkably, love starts again each day
though I’m having trouble breathing, and you remind me my allergy
medication’s probably off. Your words and the smell of you linger.
And in another poem can be anxious, clipped and harsh. He can speak to us of “the overpriced transplant business” in “Her Eyes Flew Open” in which a woman who is brain-dead is used to harvest organs. His poems deal in odd dreams such as of his dog in “Disappearance and Modulation,” a fine poem about the gradual physical decline of the poet’s mother and his growing grief for his mother.
All in all, Covino is a quirky poet, one who surprises the reader constantly with his sophistication, erudition, wit and disturbingly sad takes on life. It is a swift wit which jumps off the page without a safety net, landing freshly far afield.
The Right Place to Jump
By Peter Covino
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Paperback, 9781936970094, 74 pp.