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I recently attended a taping of Oprah Winfrey’s “Lifeclass” with Deepak Chopra and Perez Hilton—who, swears he’s enlightened now—at Radio City Music Hall. Oprah’s adoring fans took notes in spiral notebooks and on their iPads. I appreciated Oprah & co.’s attempts to heal but I wasn’t quite connecting with the collective euphoria. Chopra noted something along the lines of “the past is gone, the future is not here yet, and all there is is the present.” This to me seems like the antithesis of what many poets do. I read Wayne Koestenbaum‘s new book of poems, Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background (Turtle Point Press), in midst of another spring under Winfrey’s “Lifeclass” spell.
The mosaics in Koestenbaum’s lively, striking work are cut and grouted in pop and circumstance: the debris of the past (“Estate Sale,” where a medallion of opera singer Anna Moffo is bought, humorously, via “iGavel”) and the iridescence of identity (“In peacock hat I feel / anonymous, strange, not easily / categorized”). Assembled in punchy declarative phrasing, the poems are parties of intellectual lingo and pop figures where the dead and living mingle and where Koestenbaum, as party host, could (“not easily”) be dubbed as the “Mrs. Robinson of Abstract Expressionism.” Throughout, Koestenbaum is funny, ribald (“The shy / shrimpy girl across the street / wants me to rim her husband— / a desire she communicates / through magic-marker murals”) and his poems delve into dream-like worlds (“Dream: Tom Cruise, sitting on my lap, / said my shirt smelled like skunk or neglect”). I was drawn specifically to “Saltine Poem” which was emblematic of the collection and the mosaic motif (“salt grains served / as commas, periods”). Here Koestenbaum is comic, acute, and bars out bare emotion (“My grandmother poured / syrup on the saltine, / wept. Her tale / was excessive”).
A consistent rhythm is the beat behind the constant language play until a notable shift in music in “The Ice Cream Man.” With sexual and apocalyptic innuendo in the repeated phrase “the ice cream man cometh,” it builds breathlessly as the book’s climax. In the final poem, “April in Venice,” Koestenbaum offers clever surprises that simultaneously resist and conjure solemnity while talking of history and death [“I touched (with Jew / hand) Pound’s grave”].
If Perez Hilton described his moments of clarity as “a-ha orgasms,” I guess I could say Koestenbaum is full of poetic “a-ha orgasms” too, as his poems are rich with language, spontaneity, and splendor. As the world of television attempts to reduce us, Koestenbaum’s brainy, complicated webs confirm the ambiguities of existence.
Blue Stranger With Mosaic Background
By Wayne Koestenbaum
Turtle Point Press
Paperback, 9781933527604, 128 pp.