Little Tragedies, poems by Howie Good. India: Graffiti Kolkata, 2011.
Being a fan of Good, I immediately noticed that many of these poems were longer than his usual fare, though they continue to be the surreal, yet poignant, snapshots at which Good excels. “Scene of the Accident” is the opening poem. Good hints at a scene of tragedy in the first section with a “nurse in white clogs” who “has to give the boy with the cuckoo clock heart a sedative.” The second section covers reactions, for example, “Pedestrians stood weeping at the crosswalk.” And in the third section, Good paints a vivid final scene, “The light doesn’t last all that long, of course, but as long as it lasts, we become like souls with red-painted toenails, the fallen factory chimneys along the Merrimack, dancing peasants scantily clad amid the snow of a Russian prison camp.” There is joy amidst the wreckage, here. Though there has been tragedy, there is hope because these characters don’t let the ‘accident’ overwhelm them.
“Exit Visa” describes a narrator who “woke up speaking another language.” The narrator can’t seem to communicate. He (I assume it’s a ‘he’ though this isn’t made clear) is a kind of romantic hero, alienated from the world and unable to bridge that gap. And the world is a terrifying one. “I started home, but cops were beating a man on the corner. It might as well have been the fall of France, or the day Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.” Even the weather offers no solace: “The sky was the dismal gray of neglect.” I could quote the whole poem, there are so many standout lines. Good uses surreal language in a Kafka-esque manner to heighten the alienness of the narrator’s situation.
Good uses war imagery throughout this chapbook, “the last Jews in Krakow are hanging from lamp posts,” “blackened corpses, mounds of rubble,” “the sound of a shell being jacked into the chamber.” These scenes are often set ‘far away,’ either in location or time, but they could just as easily be a warning for the future. The poem “9-1-1” brings this idea home by portraying a hostile world in which naked women resemble corpses and the narrator sleeps with a weapon under his pillow. What should’ve been a ‘safe’ world has been changed, tainted; even sex has been tainted.
Even though these poems often tend towards the surreal, they are grounded in reality, often a horrible reality. Let us not forget that the incorporation of surrealist elements into literature really grew from a reaction to the atrocities of war in the early part of the Twentieth Century. The characters in Good’s poems face fractured realities in which joy and horror come equally as unexpectedly, and can end just as suddenly.