john compton, blacked out borderline from an exponential crisis (Ethel Press, 2023) 54 pages, poetry, limited run of 60 copies, $10.00. Order here.
On the whole, I'm a big fan of john compton's poetry, having read most of his oeuvre to date. There is something delightful and irresistible in the music of his phrases and the dagger-focus evident in each individual word. Each poem is crisp against the teeth and tart on the tongue like a green apple with a whisky after-bite in the throat. These aren't the kind of poems to cuddle up with in the winter with a cup of tea and a blanket. They do not comfort; they jar and jostle. Not as extreme as a rollercoaster. More like slight turbulence in a cross-country flight. And they are deeply autobiographical, like confessional poetry modernised. As compton here says, a kind of manifesto of his poetry as I have experienced it so far: "my house is a/documentary untelevised unwritten/a secret it grows ...the empty only a symptom."
compton's work is not the place to go if you are a woman seeking refuge from the male preoccupation with penises and sex. He is proudly gay and many of the poems go there explicitly. Since I am not interested in sex no matter who is doing it, at least not explicitly, I tend to skip those. You won't find a lot of it in my own work, to be sure, unless you are determined or it is in the context of abuse. It simply isn't a big presence in my mental life.
There are blocks of poems here about compton losing several beloved dogs and puppies to a Parvo outbreak. These aren't sentimental in the traditional sense, however. More like love poetry with a lot of blood. And some of them can be read as metaphors for the experience of living through the COVID pandemic, and now learning to live with it as a constant background threat. He writes: "our aggression eats us." There is also a block of poems written about and to several historic poets, each one a projection of compton onto that poet in ways that are insightful.
Lest we should forget that he is, in fact, an Appalachian poet, he reminds us with his closing poem, which is a vague reminder of the ballad "Barbara Allen".
For me, the best poem in this particular collection is an ode to womanhood that has wizened and I will close this review with it:
she pauses in wading the lake waist
high the water touching parts she
forgot had existed she slips her
hand into the murkiness wondering
if her hair ever felt like this she
knew she used to be beautiful
before age broke her body across
the floor like a chair she rocks
herself her feet moving between
the silt the ducks revolve around
her like moons before settling in
their landing they search her she
understands she is not a tree but
could she just raise her arms like
branches & feel love for a moment
a foot farther an inch deeper she
remembers how to heal a wound
with a band aid before the children
were too old to not need her she
breathes she breathes she breathes
while everyone else has finished
letting her exist