Book Review

By Tony Leuzzi

Of Whiskey and Winter, by Peter Conners (White Pine Press)

Peter Conners's Of Whiskey and Winter is the best single volume of prose poems I have read in years. Such praise sounds reckless, even hyperbolic, but it is not. I have read and re-read this book with the keenest pleasure, for each piece is rhythmically stunning and intellectually rigorous, at once a statement of individual creativity and a clever synthesis of the prose poetry tradition.

Organized into four sections, Of Whiskey and Winter begins with "The Names of Winter." As a sequence, these poems are perhaps the most transparent of the entire collection, but it's a transparency that articulates the distinction between simple and simplicity.

In his poem titled "In All for This" Conners writes, "The spiders of December spin frost webs across the windows. They disappear under direct gaze; illuminated by sly glance alone, too elusive for a poet or a toddler." The first sentence (which is as musical as formal, lined verse) establishes an image and then skillfully shifts focus to the poet and toddler who might ponder it. The rest of the poem traces poet and son as they share time together on a day in a month whose name "can be split into three." This poem, like many in Of Whiskey and Winter, shares an affinity with the crisp, spare imagery of Gary Young. Nonetheless, Conners has a wider range: "Snowbirds," "Endurance" and "The Poet Washes Dishes" boast a wry, sardonic edge that hints towards satire.

Another strain in Conners's work is his ability to parody existing prose forms. In "Instructions for a Rainy Day," the poet urges the reader to "Try this: Go outside in a rainstorm ... Imagine how many drops of water there are falling all around you." Structurally, the poem resembles any number of exercises one might find in Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind. However, the hilarious parenthetical disclaimers throughout undermine these very instructions and call attention to the unintentionally comic pitch of certain "How to" writing texts. Still, despite the humor, Conners takes an unexpected turn leaving us to ponder a haunting question: "ask yourself, with these raindrops all around—why do so few enter my mouth?"

Elsewhere, Conners's prose is distinctive for its strong lyrical charge: "Let fingers touch fingers," Conners says in "The Rebellion of Fingers": "let them lament this rough streak of humanity." Here the language recalls the cadence and style of the King James Bible without sounding pretentious or derivative. And he is at his most entertaining when he invokes Mallarme and Baudelaire. Indeed, Conners wears surrealism like a hat tipped at a jaunty angle. For him the technique is a posture, and he performs it very well. Consider "American Prose Poet," where Conners begins with a confession: "I love prose poetry but don't speak French." This limitation ironically leads to a blissfully irreverent freedom: "Mispronounce the great minds ... Only the academics can cut you now, and we all know about them—they eat canapés and call it art." The surrealist aesthetic surfaces more deliberately in such poems as "The Wonderment We Bypassed": "I built a city out of a strand of your hair but the bombs came and stripped all but the memory of your shampoo, the cigarette smoke of desert cafes ..."

But beneath the swirling surface of playful illogic looms a darker, deeper reality, where the poet struggles honestly with death and silence as well as any writer of his generation. It is here that he realizes the heart in his child's body will never be his own; here that a girl cannot rely on her parents to rescue her from the hatred she has for her body; here that a lover sacrifices space for his beloved and then asks her "what will you do for me?" The poems plunge head first into the darkness and return to the light with a handful of stars.

There is much to recommend in this book; however, my favorite expression of the form occurs in "A Man Learns to Fly," a previously unpublished poem in which a father teaches his son to name and love the plain, ugly birds that visit their feeder; thus, "In the boy's front yard, truly, the meek had inherited the earth." The narrative could end there, but like most of the poems in Of Whiskey and Winter, Conners extends the form in magical ways.

"Such is the ornithology of family", he writes, a statement that recalls the leavings and homecomings associated with all families, particularly in the relations between father and son. The conceit is as old as Odysseus, though Conners invests it with a surprising twist: "to return a man to find his father..." a man to find his father turned to ash beside a bag of grainy seeds. And this note: "Help Me to Fly."

Whether he is transforming ancient narratives into contemporary fictions or stripping away layers and layers of linguistic textures to reveal the naked truth of our aloneness, Conners's singular wisdom and deft musicality somehow make the process seem as effortless as breathing.

Tony Leuzzi

Tony Leuzzi is a poet who teaches literature and writing in Rochester, NY. He has had poems and prose articles published in a wide range of small press and academic journals. His book, Tongue-Tied and Singing, was published by Foothills in 2004.