Saturday, August 27, 2016


As you can see from the subtitle, Joel Lewis's MY SHAOLIN is a book length poem about Staten Island, or more specifically about Staten Island's history and present and Joel Lewis's observations and adventures during his commute from Jersey through Manhattan to and from Staten Island.

Book-length poems are rare and ones that work to sustain my interest even rarer. There are some brilliant exceptions, like William Carlo Williams's PATERSON, Louis Zukofsky's "A", Nazim Hikmet's HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY (a novel in verse, as he called it), Gary Snyder's MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS WITHOUT END, or my own OF (I know, immodest of me, but it's still one of my favorite book-length poems along with my book-(but-a-very-short-book)-length MARCH 18, 2003) and probably others I can't think of right now.

MY SHAOLIN (Shaolin being the Wu Tang Clan's name for Staten Island) seems to have been inspired more by W. C. Williams's PATERSON than the others mentioned. But it is uniquely Lewis's creation. Separated into several sections, and each of them further separated into smaller sections representing where that part of the poem was written (or the poet's perspective is). Lewis uses ferries, subway trains, buses and walking as part of his commute, and little drawings (silhouettes) of a bus or subway or ferry or pedestrian etc. head each smaller section.

Reading this poem/book is like joining Lewis in his adventures going to and from Staten Island and his recording of his experiences while there and that of others throughout the island's history. I highly recommend this book, especially as a gift to any friends with any connection to Staten Island, but also to lovers of any of the long poems I've mentioned.

I'll leave you with two short excerpts to give a tiny taste of MY SHAOLIN:

The bomb-sniffing dogs are sleeping side by side,
Whitehall Terminal filling up with sunshine.
Woman next to me in the elevator hums along to earbud gospel.
The 7:45 AM boat empties, passengers walking downstairs
underneath a king-size patria mia American flag.
"All the days in the world
don't add up to opera," says a gabardine-suited man to his
pal in the IBEW poplin jacket
across from the Pizza Plus counter.
The margarita stand is setting up.
This morning seems a remake, but with better data.

Off the boat, down the pedestrian walkway
then stop at Richmond Terrace waiting
for green light. A woman in white blouse,
              black bangs and onyx-lens sunglasses
approaches me with this seasons' must-have: a clipboard

"Excuse me sir, are you a registered Republican?"

"Only in my nightmares."

"Well, thank you for your time, have a good day."

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