Naomi Guttman’s third collection is a startling, well-paced novella in verse. It follows nine years after Wet Apples, White Blood, co-winner of the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Best Book of Poetry for 2007, and her debut book, Reasons for Winter, winner of the 1992 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. To her credit, she has fleshed out a corpus of poems which very often succeed as separate entities outside the story—not as simple a feat as it sounds—and always come through as mosaic pieces in a pivotal year between two artists. Donny, a professor of music and a keyboard wizard, is not seeing eye-to-eye with Ari, a weaver, whose installations reference “our unfolding environmental catastrophe.” The couple has two sons: the restless adolescent Stephan and his thoughtful five-year-old brother Onno. Throw in Ari’s mom, plagued with late-stage dementia, and Ari’s heartbroken father, and you have a fraught three-generational cast. In “Act I, Winter,” Ari weighs in with this bulletin from “Domestic Dirge:” “curse 3:00 a.m. sweat and / racing pulse, toilet trip, water glass, drug-sleep dawn; damn weeks rushed / of sun and sweet white orchards, moments that should last.” Given that this book also has a prologue and four more acts, The Banquet of Donny & Ari offers something in the tradition of a tragicomic opera. In fact, during his summer break, Donny turns out to be directing a production of the opera Orfeo. If, like me, you see this as a pretty richly brocaded cloth to set on the table space of one book, you are correct. The wonder is that Guttman makes this weave of character, flavour, odour, sight and sound work so smoothly. Part of her success is achieved by close attention to structure. She varies poems that function as mood songs with others that operate as narrative vignettes to keep the story moving. However, rather than fall prey to sameness of form, she alternates short free-verse poems with formal structures such as a pantoum, triolet and palindrome. Her pantoum, “Chernobyl Wedding, 1986,” foregrounds tough times ahead: “They’d always believed the world would end / in a bright blast, then blankness— / not malignant pinpricks, invisible, / not toxins salting eccentric winds.” Quoting these lines, I am prompted to add that while this poet does traffic in impending doom, there is a heartiness, even a lustiness, for life’s earthy details running through her collection which prevents it from becoming monochromatic or bathetic. Her characters stumble but pick themselves up and keep cooking, weaving and flirting. In “Off-Leash,” a poem which takes place in a dog park while Donny is directing his production of Orfeo, “Ari, meets a man she hasn’t seen before. / It’s 3:00 p.m. Shabby beard, unwashed hair, / pajama bottoms, leather jacket, a cigarette / (…) punched between his lips. / But (…) when he exhales / his mouldy breath and smiles she thinks / this just might be the perfect time to smoke.” The last line exemplifies Guttman’s use of iambic pentameter. She employs it sparingly and unobtrusively to give certain of her poems added rhythmic punch. Among the baker’s dozen of highlights in this book are “Sour Teeth,” “Bel Canto,” “Speranza” and “In Praise of Uxoriousness.” I recommend The Banquet of Donny and Ari both for what it takes on and for what it so ably accomplishes.
Peter Richardson’s most recent collection is Sympathy for the Couriers (2007). A new book, Bit Parts For Fools, is due out with Goose Lane Editions in the next year. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec.