Tuesday, December 20, 2011



RED WALLS by James Tolan
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2011)

As a poet, I have had the occasional doubt as regards the merit, the worth, of what I and other poets do. And, to be frank, much poetry that I read—even poems I admire—rarely dispel such doubts. What a relief then to have read the poems in James Tolan’s RED WALLS. For these poems draw you into a new, vivid world wrought from turmoil and trauma, and hold you there with their honesty and empathy:
Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning

When my father’s father died,
            my father didn’t cry a bit,
just grabbed a fifth of whiskey and
            a rake all bent to shit

then dragged himself out the back door
            to do what he did best,
work and drink till the drink was done
            and the work was put to rest.

And when he was through what he had done
            was sheer instead of rake.
The lawn, like a black sheep greened,
            was gone for a dead man’s sake

and the earthen wounds left behind
            gathered a still life of waste,
broken rake and broken man,
            blue-nosed and red-faced.

I hauled his hump into the house
            and poured him to the floor.
The dogs licked vomit from his jowls
            then brayed at the backdoor.

If God is love and father too
            then love is a bare bone.
I left the dogs out in the yard
            and him to rouse his hide alone.

Instead he snored and pissed himself
            upon the kitchen vinyl,
slack-jawed his partial from his gums
            and bloomed a toothless smile.

At one point, I was tempted to call them “spare” writing, … but then realized that, actually, it’s more that each word in the collection is absolutely necessary.

And it’s just as well that Tolan’s craft is so mature as the content of this collection has to do with something so difficult and complicated and raw that it can easily upend a lesser craftman: in RED WALLS, to quote one of the blurbers Dorianne Laux, we “see a boy struggling to find his place in the masculine shadow of a stoic hard-drinking father.” I’ve read several poetry collections that have been based on the poet’s recollection of his childhood—Tolan’s achievement is so much greater than some others due to what blurber Burt Kimmelman calls his “catastrophe of childhood.”

The stupendous “Filched” bespeaks the nature of Tolan’s recollections of a past clearly replete with its difficult moments, and how those memories alchemize into poems of great beauty. Whereas I presented in full above the poem “Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning” because I wanted to show Tolan’s effective sense of musicality, I simply love this poem “Filched” so much that I want to present it in full:


Is that vintage? they ask.

It was my dad’s, I say, and think of a thirsty man for whom that word meant only a crack about drink, Gimme a tall one of your finest vintage!

I found it among tie pins and cufflinks in his top drawer, filched it years before I knew the word,

            when I thought only that I wanted something beautiful
            and ruined,

            something I could take from him who knew work and the bar
            better than home.

Crystal scratched, leather dry and stitching frayed, he never
noticed it was gone, or else he never said.

From his dresser to the carved wooden box of tattered treasures
I buried inside my hand-me-down chest,

            until the no more of him sent me rooting for some relic
            I could hold.

Glass polished and gears set right, new band strapped to my wrist.


It’s beautiful
, they say.

It was my dad’s, and I let them assume, inheritance or gift,

that he was a man of taste who shared it with his son.

Let others believe I was offered what I stole.

…which leads me to close with an excerpt from the title poem “Red Walls” because it hearkens the lovely accomplishment of Tolan’s book—a collection of poems one begins to read with one’s eyes only to become emotionally invested with one’s heart:
Where I come from
we take bricks
one by one.

We take them red
and muddied
from the earth.

Where I come from
we take bricks
from the earth.

We take them
one by one.
Where I come from

masons worked.
Ground grew up.
Ate what

they left behind.
Where I come from
bricks got swallowed.

And it’s our job
to loose them
from the soil.

Where I come from
each takes his bricks
and builds a wall

to protect what
we’ve been given,
to make special

those we invite in.

I am grateful for these poems which would not have been possible, I believe, without James Tolan’s vision being not just lucid but generous.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Zvi A. Sesling in Boston Area Poetry Scene; by Michael Leong in Big Other; by Alan Baker in Litter; and by rob mclennan. Stephen Hong Sohn also reviews SILK EGG along with two other books, NOTA BENE EISWEIN and FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA: Uncollected Poems 1995-2009 at Asian American Lit Fans.

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