Call me crazy, but when I chose this anthology, I expected it to be a collection of poems specifically about summer, viewing the season and its trimmings from interesting and unusual angles. The cover of the edition that I read (Kindle) depicted a retro black and white snapshot of a seagull in front of a seaside pier, persuading me to expect poems about summer holidays spent at the seaside or other traditional resorts.
When the engaging preface invited the reader to enjoy “an eclectic range of poems… a poem for every summer moment”, I continued to think I knew where I was heading. Like a continuity announcer, whoever wrote the introduction worked hard to provide a summery connection for each piece. “Lonely Woman” by Michael Hann is described as “best read when sitting on a park bench on a sunny day”. Well, wouldn’t that apply to a lot of poems? Actually, this is one of the poems that does include a summer connection. But, the inducement to read “Crash” by Joe Clifford “if the heat has made you grouchy”, because it has absolutely no summer-themed content, is taking things too far.
All of those things – the title, the cover and the introduction – so wrong-footed me that on first reading, I was puzzled. Some poems were clearly summer-related, but some were not in the slightest. I reread them, wondering whether I’d missed something. Or were they Offbeat Summer Poems because they’d left the track of summer behind altogether? Hmm…
I should point out that I do love a clearly themed collection or anthology. For poetry and prose, the right theme can make the whole much greater than the sum of the parts. As I read on, those layers were not building up. Even so, I was very taken by many of the poems as I went along, summery or not. By the time I reached the end, I decided that my false expectations were doing the book an injustice, especially when I read the poets’ biographies at the end – they have all been published widely elsewhere, and in some prestigious journals.
I therefore returned to the beginning and read each poem again separately, on its own merits, yearning for some sort of poetical palate cleanser in between courses to avoid confusion.
There was plenty of variety in there, not least in size and shape, which was as varied as the holiday baggage on an airline carousel. Dan Nielsen’s provocative and neatly packaged two-stanza poems top and tail the collection, and also provide a breathing space half-way through. A couple of the pieces felt like sagas, summer journeys in themselves.
Wry, light-hearted and witty observations on relationships and on the narrator’s sense of self offset the darker poems. I love Michael Estabrook’s gentle self-mockery in “Alpha-Male on the Beach”, in which he seeks adulation for plunging manfully into the cold sea, but finds any admiration short-lived. I also enjoyed his commentary on a masterful musician’s feats of memory in “Yo-Yo Ma plays Schuman’s Cello Concerto in A minor”. The closing lines are still making me smile, days later: “And I have trouble recalling what I had for breakfast today./I guess that’s why he’s Yo-Yo Ma and I’m not.”
Mixed in are poignant portraits of lost and anguished characters, such as in “Lonely Woman” by Michael Hann and Valentina Cano’s “Blood on a Path”.
Settings range from urban grime to city-centre park to spooky built environments to equally threatening wilderness. Skipping about geographically in this way actually added back a sense of travel, if not necessarily in the sense of taking a summer holiday. Some included tactile descriptions of the impact of hot weather on human beings.
This is especially powerful in city contexts, such as Ben Nardolilli’s whimsical “Bleecker Street La Brea”, in which where the imprint of a sneaker on hot tarmac offers the wearer relative immortality, and Sonnet Mondal’s “Blue-Collar Twister”, where the weather threatens to overpower a manual labourer.
An inherent sense of dangerous adventure is evoked when the poets go off the beaten track. The mood of Fariel Shafee ‘s “The Journey”, involving a sun-burnished boat trip down a wild river, put me in mind of the movie Deliverance (without the banjos) and even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Speaking of movies, one of the poems that stood out for me was the long narrative “Crash”, by Joe Clifford, explaining how his disagreement with his wife over the value of the eponymous film had led to or at least crystallised the ending of his marriage.
I could go on – there was not a weak poem in there, and each repaid the effort of rereading and digesting, once I’d got over my mental block about whether or not this was truly a themed anthology. So I’d say – go read it, whatever time of year it is, and whatever your frame of mind. It’s diverting, stimulating, and interesting, and will almost certainly prompt you to seek out further works by the poets whose contributions you enjoy the most. And after all, from their point of view, isn’t that also a key aim of an anthology?