Tuesday, June 20, 2017


John Reed's FREE BOAT is a brilliant and challenging tour de force. Which could be said about every book of his. Like his using lines from various Shakespeare plays to create an entirely new, unique, post-modern yet totally intelligible, Shakespeare play: ALL THE WORLD'S A GRAVE. Or his sequel to ANIMAL HOUSE: SNOWBALL'S CHANCE. Or his seemingly conventional but lushly original Civil War historical romance A STILL SMALL VOICE. Or his satirical take on contemporary "American" "culture" as a seemingly THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS extended acid induced riff THE WHOLE. Et. al.

But first two disclosures. When my oldest son, Miles, was five and moved in with me in New York in the Spring of 1975, (his sister Caitlin joined us for the summer and eventually joined us permanently), his first real friend was John Reed. So John has been a lifelong friend of my son's, and of mine. Second, I've got a thing about books that mix poetry and prose.

When I was a teenager in the 1950s and first read Dante's VITA NUOVA, I fell in love with that mix (whether mostly poetry with just a dollop of prose, or more prose thank poetry) and never fell out. Some of my favorites off the top of my head are William Carlos Williams's SPRING AND ALL, THE DESCENT OF WINTER and PATERSON; Jean Toomer's CANE; James Schuyler's THE CRYSTAL LITHIUM and THE HOME BOOK; James Haining's A QUINCY HISTORY; and a whole bunch of my books: ROCKY DIES YELLOW, CATCH MY BREATH, JUST LET ME DO IT, ATTITUDE, HOLLYWOOD MAGIC, IT'S NOT NOSTALGIA, and IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE (wow, another list from my post-op brain).

The structure of FREE BOAT is closest to my first mix-of-prose-and-poetry love, Dante's VITA NUOVA. In that book, a collection of Dante's early poems written to his lifelong obsession, and first true love, Beatrice, the poems are interspersed with prose explantations of the poems or further explication of the themes in them etc. FREE BOAT appears to extend that poet/commentator model, but from a 21st-Century perspective.

Though Reed's FREE BOAT is the first book of his that seems to finally come out of his real life experience, it's interspersed with fictitious, and at times fictitiously sensationalized, elements. Which means a lot of the explanations, as well as the poems themselves, include post-modern approaches like an unreliable narrator, language games, deliberate misdirection, juxtapositions of images and phrases, and even words, that seem to be intended to create confusion but also fusion, of unlike ideas and interpretations (and other John Reeds' google info?), creating a kind of series of language and "biographical" mini-explosions and excursions. There are lots of photos too, some of, or including, the author at various ages, others of the many other "John Reeds" to be found on Google, or images related to the author's life or the lives of other John Reeds, etc. leading to more revelations and some more obfuscations.

Despite all the "experimental-writing" (a term that used to be used for anything untraditional back in my day) aspects of Reed's FREE BOAT, the poems in it are often in the form of traditional sonnets, though most of them blow that traditional poetic form wide open (and sideways and otherwise) to accommodate the twists and turns of the seeming murder-mystery plot of the memoir-esque facets of the book. I suspect FREE BOAT will not be to everyone's taste (though it is to mine). But its brilliant intellectual virtuosity and creative originality cannot be denied.

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