Alan Catlin is one the finest practitioners of the the lyrical arts on the small press scene over the last 20 years. His work seems ubiquitous, though his style varies according to its subject. Some of his finest work may be seen in his ekphrastic poems, such as the volume entitled Effects of Sunlight in the Fog, which I reviewed here back in 2009. I've also had the pleasure of publishing a handful of Block Island poem from the pen of Catlin, perfect little 'line drawings' of life at world's end.
Another phase of his poetry, for which he is more well-known, might be thought of as his anti-lyrical lyrical work, of which the volume Only the Dead Know Albany (Sunnyoutside Press, Buffalo, NY), is a premiere example. Like Dave Church's poems, which came from his everyday experiences as a cabbie, Alan's long-time stint as a bartender in the hardscrabble town of Albany, New York, frame the everyday working class lives of desperation so many people lead.
I've done time in many a town where there is a bar on every corner and two in between: Bayonne and Highlands, NJ, and Pittsburgh, PA to name just a few. Many an old school Irish or Slavic or Italian neighborhood, where constituents voted for a congressman currently doing time for corruption (because he took care of your kid when he got in hot water, or squared your parking ticket, or made your little neighborhood problem go away), could at one time be found in northern industrial cities (think Albany, Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh etc.), some of which, having long gone to seed, resprouted in the last gentrified years of 20th century America.
It's one thing to reel off a couple of Jimmy Breslin-style wiseguy sentences about towns like these, another altogether to capture them in a poem. Alan Catlin nails it time and time again.
If you are having trouble conjuring up Dante's 7th circle, no problem: Alan Catlin's Albany will do very nicely, indeed. Here's the title poem:
Only the Dead Know Albany
and the side alleys, cock-fought
streets, high-stakes crap games
decided by a blade and a motorcycle
chain, brass knuckles and steel-toed
boots; row-housed tenements blocks
long, Clinton Avenue to Arbor Hill,
where no trees bloomed, buildings in
full flame, cops and robbers gaming
the Man, the Black Maria and a banshee
wail long summer nights before
Urban Renewal razed the earth
and only the dead knew Albany.
All these seem visions of a past, conjuring a present not much improved:
The opening line
always was, "Got
a light?" The ones
that did leaned in
close as she cupped
her hands around
the flame, as she
said how much
the full ride would
cost for a bareback
trip with frills and she
had lots of takers
even if she looked
to be a half-dead
teen angel whose
eyes were as hard
as her grave marker;
one date already
carved, the other
of the way done.
Catlin's poems don't glorify the hard old times, they shine a light full in the face of existence - this isn't about revering outlaws, this is about surviving.
Bus Stop Corner of Lark and Central Avenue, Albany, NY
He was holding onto support
of the bus shelter bench as
if his life depended upon it
and maybe, in a way it did.
The cops in his face telling
him to let go, get a move on,
give everyone a break, hesitant
to use force, to touch this more-
than-aromatic bum, more pissed on
than dangerous, hesitant to use force
with so many onlookers making
mental notes, their voices just so
much more mental static in a world
gone seriously crazy, his drink-
addled brain emitting a kind of
drunkard's lingua franca only
like-minded derelicts could
understand finally managing
one last coherent phrase before
the cops give him over to mental
health gendarmes in lab coats and
latex gloves, "You must understand,
I don't know who I am!"
Only the Dead Know Albany is a 32 page chapbook with one heavy dose of reality after another, captured by a talented eye and a sensitive demeanor, a sketchbook of circle after circle, adding up to exactly we know what. The book is available directly from the publisher, sunnyoutside press; if not, there is always that giant evil online warehouse, but, since this is Small Press Friday, I'll let you find your way there on your own.
even melting snow
translated by David G. Lanoue
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