Oyster Boy Review 11  
  April 1999
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Michael McNeilley's Punch Lines & Virgil Hervey's David Called Today

Mark Roberts

Punch Lines.
Michael McNeilley.
32 pages, $3 (chapbook).

David Called Today.
Virgil Hervey.
A.A.R. Press, 1998.
24 pages, $3.

Michael McNeilley's Punch Lines and Virgil Hervey's David Called Today are the first two publications from the newly formed A.A.R. Press in Seattle.  McNeilley's poems are characteristic of the homegrown, street-smart style he's nurtured since the eighties; they are formed from his passions, which run deep and sincere.  Hervey's poems, on the other hand, are more anecdotal and observational, rendering his book a collection of small records of a curious and enigmatic character named David.  Despite the differences in approach, both poets at times write too blandly and plain, often leaving what might've been a well-crafted poem with only one redeeming quality—intrigue.  Nevertheless, McNeilley turns out to be the better poet by virtue of his emotionally contagious, passionate utterings.

Hervey's David Called Today details numerous encounters with a mental patient.  The short, elliptical poems are either paranoid or imaginative ramblings of David, or the speaker's frustration with David's unusual commentaries and bewildering requests.  Some readers will find the book entertaining, humorous and intriguing, while others might be reluctant to call it "poetry," at least in the traditional sense.  Let's look at one poem, "evicted."

David called today.
Wants to know
what he can do
about being evicted.
Whenever he's committed
his mother stops
paying his rent
cleans out his apartment
and stores his things.
"Dave, does this mean
your mother now has your copy of 'Blow Me'?"
Silence on the other
end of the line . . .

A friend of mine, a fine poet and critic, said to me in frustration one day, "why do people think that by dropping out the subject their lines suddenly become poetic?"  This is what I mean by saying some may not be willing to call the above a poem or at least a well-crafted one.  It can come off as a mere anecdote.  In fact, Hervey's poems are more like a scene from a film or play than poems in and of themselves.

Perhaps we can call these poems "found" poetry, David being the found poem, and Hervey's book a collection of anecdotal run-ins with him.  I can appreciate this type of work, to a certain extent, because it's a study of the reactions we can have to those who live in a reality only partially connected to our own.  One of the better poems, "David called on Monday," goes beyond anecdote, illustrating how the speaker is changed by his paranoid friend.  In this poem, Hervey makes comparisons between psychiatric wards, and the authorities who manage the residents, to family homes and the parents who attempt to manage their out-of-control children.  The speaker, unwillingly brought to this uneasy juxtaposition, abruptly cuts David off when he says "thanks for depressing me / for the rest of the day, Dave / Give me a call / at the end of the week / I don't feel like talking / anymore, right now."

McNeilley's Punch Lines takes a different approach, as he works in the Romantic tradition, composing poems wrought from an overflow of feelings.  We feel this in the rhythmic quality and rush in some of his lines "I only weighed 190 then / but they wanted a heavyweight / and I wanted out of town / and I wanted the $50 / which was real money / in those days" ("Tell Me Again").  Several poems in this collection are long narratives of the poet's past when he fought in bars as "irish mike."  The best of these "punching" poems is "A Clean Shaven Man."  In it, McNeilley shows his talent as a story teller, keenly aware of the psychology that marks his actions and those who watch him.  He, ironically, writes that the spectators of his fights are "sophisticated" because they "needed real blood."  Notable image-driven lines appear frequently in this poem "the heart drains out of him / like blood from a hung deer."

The most striking quality of McNeilley's book are the unpunctuated, short stabbing lines which work well with his subjects' violence, aggression, sibling rivalry, bar fighting, parental scolding.  Occasionally, McNeilley hits the right notes, yielding some fine, impassioned lines of poetry that are precisely affecting:

god they were screaming
I only stepped back for a
split second but
I'll never forget the way
the sound of it rang through me
and I threw a long left hook
a haymaker
you almost never get to do
one of those
no one will stand still for it.

Although McNeilley's language is common, speech-oriented and prose-like, it expresses sentiment with passion and, an almost necessity.  McNeilley's better poems may not be "crafty," they may not contain words that are beautiful or full of nuances, but they are meaningful and approach the reader with sincerity.

Each poet has his weaknesses and strengths.  And I can't not recommend either work, as both offer a certain amount of pleasure.  Still, after skimming through them one last time, I couldn't help but ask myself if I would have enjoyed them better in another medium: McNeilley's book in fictional prose and Hervey's as documentary film.

[With an A.A.R. Press $15.00 annual subscription, supporters receive one chapbook about every other month.]