Blind Date with Cavafy by Steve Fellner
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2007)
I know, I know. Don’t judge a book by its cover. But I read Blind Date with Cavafy totally because of its cover, which was designed by Claudia Carlson. A terrific title, combining trendy pop culture sensibility with the name of one of the most touching poets of exile in the twentieth century. And add to that, a bright close-up photo of a cup of coffee and I was hooked.
Fortunately, many of the poems inside Steve Fellner’s award-winning debut volume fulfill those expectations. The poems are funny, topical, insightful and accessible. The collection starts strong with “Epiphanies.”
Everyone was having them. You couldn’t walk
through the neighborhood streets without seeing people
smacking their foreheads with the palms of their hands,
bragging about another bright idea.
These lines show much of Fellner’s approach. An epiphany is one of those concepts much abused and over-used in contemporary writing. Fellner undercuts over-familiar pomposity with humor and unexpected visual detail.
Down-to-earth detail triumphs in the oddly funny poem “Judgment Day.” Whether we believe it literally or not, most of us have the same image of Judgment Day: the patriarchal figure sternly evaluating each human who comes before him. Imagine the length of the line, Fellner suggests. Imagine how intimidating that wait would be.
The line stretches across several
continents. Angels hover above you,
offering crossword puzzle books, cigarettes,
Dixie cups of red wine, fraudulent smiles.
You make small talk with the man behind you.
. . . .
You wonder how God can listen to everyone’s litany
of sins without yawning.
Certain ideas and themes crop up repeatedly in the book, which won the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize in 2006. The poet shares his love of literature--Shakespeare and Catullus warrant numerous references--and he revels in pop culture, particularly trashy movies. He also likes to think about the reality of famous folks. For example, “Breakfast with Socrates” sees the real man constantly pondering big, unanswerable questions.
I bet Socrates hated waking up in the morning.
With every sip of coffee, he thought about the possibility
of choking, which led him to ponder the afterlife,
the meaning of his life, our lives.
If being Socrates is tough, imagine his wife’s situation.
I bet she craved the art of small talk. How horrible
to threaten divorce and receive a litany
of reasons as to how betrayal is an essential
and necessary component in any relationship.
For all its humor and honesty, the book occasionally lapses into a judgmental, disparaging tone. I was looking forward to the title poem, to see what a talented, contemporary poet had to say about Cavafy. Cavafy was a Greek writer and government clerk in Alexandria, Egypt whose work was mostly unknown until after his death in 1933.
“Blind Date with Cavafy” describes the awkward meeting with an ordinary man in a nameless café. The description is certainly plausible as most biographies depict Cavafy as a quietly gay man in a severely traditional and repressive society. In Fellner’s poem, the meeting is weighed with sadness and missed opportunity.
This much I remember:
he overtipped the waiter.
. . . .
Halfway to my house,
he said he forgot his wallet
on our table. “I should go back
and get it,” he said. “Next week
I’ll come over.” I don’t remember what happened
the next week. Or the week
Although the poem aptly describes the sadness of these brief encounters, it ends with an abrupt dismissal of Cavafy’s poems.
I never read
a poem of his through to the end. I want
to believe he left something, someone out.
I’m not sure what is gained by ending the poem this way. To evoke a wonderful poet as Cavafy and then reject his work as lacking struck me as off-putting.
A similar unpleasant tone also surfaces in “Self-Portrait,” the long, serious poem that serves as the centerpiece of the book. It isn’t the actual events but the attitude toward them that seems self-indulgent. Written in the first person, “Self-Portrait” describes a difficult childhood as the adopted child of an eccentric woman. His mother is the kind of woman who entertains other parents at a school dinner with tales of her operations. (Then again, all mothers do things that embarrass their children.) He also describes two meetings with his birth mother, who is, if anything, more eccentric than his adopted mother.
She sounded like a laugh track
gone berserk. “I put
eight kids up
during my life. Each
from a different guy.
Other incidents include his one sexual encounter with a woman, interrupted by a two-hour phone call she spent yelling at another man. The poet also talks of leaving an older lover because the man had children. The young man puts a note on the refrigerator:
. . . “There’s not enough room
in anybody’s life for two babies. Never
contact me again.” He called.
Which was more
than my father ever did
after he deserted us . . .
The voice in this poem has the unattractive quality of blaming everyone else for its unhappiness. While the events and details in “Self-Portrait” are vivid and quirky, thirteen pages of self-pity are too much for me. For a writer so capable of humor and quirky insight, melodrama is probably a bad idea.
Francie Noyes is a poet and writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. Formerly a political reporter, gubernatorial press secretary and movie critic, she now focuses on poetry and film writing. Her work has appeared in Panamowa, Key West: a collection and The Anthology of New England Writers 2002.