19 October 2010

D-Bags, Girls and Tough Guys: the Poetry of Justin Hyde

The two poetry chapbooks of Justin Hyde arrived at my door by way of friend and novelist Caleb J. Ross. Ever since reading Hyde's books I have been wrestling with the daunting task of faithfully representing them in a book review. Now allow me to immediately back-pedal what I just said. I detest reviews of every stripe that begin with a preface about how hard it was to find comparisons and make judgments about a book; album; movie; what-have-you; and then immediately do so. However, I think I can prove by merit of the thirteen day wait since announcing plans to cover these books and actually doing so that it has been a bit of a challenge. 

What I can say is that I finally found good comparisons for his work not in other poets per se but in musicians. A caveat to that: Justin Hyde's poetry ain't no love songs.

Hyde's two books of poetry are Down Where the Hummingbird goes to Die (Outside Writers Press 2008) and Another Casualty at the 34th Street Bus Stop (Liquid Paper Press 2009). The former is winner of  the Jack Micheline Memorial poetry contest and the latter was first prize in the Nerve Cowboy Chapbook Contest. While both of these awards are telling of the author, the best preface I had to these books was a picture that (accidentally?) stowed away in the media mail. Here we have Mr. Hyde himself, several years younger, sleeves rolled up, showing off a potato of a bicep with a white terry cloth robe in the background captioned in pen on the reverse: "This is me acting like a douchebag in some chicks dorm at the university of Iowa. I think I was nineteen, maybe 20." That truly puts it best; douchebags, growing up, girls, and a guy showing his tough side with a lot more going on underneath.

Hummingbird's intro makes note of good ol' Chuck Bukowski and the comparisons are apparent and easy. Alcohol, shitty parents, sex, trouble-making and finally trying to snap the cycle. I will leave the dead Bukowski horse unbeaten; I will not do what others can do for me. Casualty is very much in the same line of writing as Hummingbird and it is a shame the two are not one in the same book. Both are short enough that you want there to be more of them at the end, and so similar that there is no good reason to separate the two. 

As for what Hyde really measures up to, look to the west coast. Musicians Tom Waits, and punk bands Rancid and Sublime are the kindred souls to Hyde's books. Waits's repertoire is only bested for length by his (imaginary) rap sheet, but the song  "Saving All My Love" about a drunk whore-monger with good intentions immediately comes to mind when reading "I Used to Get so Very Lonely" from Casualty

for twenty dollars
we could go
and i could do

all i wanted
was to talk
for a bit
get to know
her view
of the world.

she looked at me
like i'd just
shit in her lap
and said
if we wasn't gonna fuck
get the hell on
cause she had mouths 
to feed.

The Rancid song "Radio" about a boy and his alcoholic father parallels the poem "A Drunkard Feeds His Son Bananas from a Jar" from Hummingbird not necessarily in words but in intentions. About the the things that keep us from spinning out from our centers: Rancid says "when I got the music I gotta place to go," and Hyde:

i don't think i can leave this little man
fathers do it all the time these days,
but that's not the type of cowardice i'm cut out for.
[. . .]
his eyes are bluish black
the left one still a little lazy.
they stare me down like a lighthouse.
As has been pretty obvious I have not said much about other poets, or even other "writers" in this review and I think that is okay. To be bold, Hyde's work goes beyond what many contemporary writers are doing. He breaks the language barrier for poetry inviting in more of the punks and the seedy-parolee type than most other writers know how to do. 80% of poetry seems to come in two forms: the ancient-iambic-and-dry (you know, the stuff of high school memorization) and the "it's-good-but-what-the-hell-does-it-mean" stuff. Do not get me wrong, I respect our roots and I like a challenge, and Hyde's work is by no means dumb, but it has a broader reach because it is more directly honest and more grounded in the everyday. Hyde is a story teller writing poems with concrete truck loads of introspective self-loathing, but I would not call him a poet. I just don't think the word is cool enough for a guy who writes like this. As S.A. Griffin says about him, "[Hyde] elevates the ordinary to the level of the extra ordinary[sic] and then brings it home again as something simple enough for the reader to appreciate and experience. Trust me, much easier said than done."

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