Frequently Asked Questions, poems by Howie Good. Palo Alto, CA: Propaganda Press, 2011.
Howie Good is one of the hardest working poets around. It seems like every couple months, he has a new chapbook or even full-length poetry collection. They’re all solid; they’re all full of strong poems dealing with big issues. Frequently Asked Questions is a new one out from Propaganda Press.
The world these poems inhabit is one rife with violence, betrayal, you know; the real world. Nameless people scream and cry. There are bullet holes in the walls, and the narrators look back from this ruined world to one they used to know that was more wholesome; “A brown halo of smoke hangs over the town,” he begins in the first section of “The Shadows of October,” creating an image of tarnished purity. Later, in the second section, he says, “A girl with the blank eyes of a statue chews on a toothpick. No one at the bus stop knows why there are sirens.” There is no warmth or even life in other people the narrator encounters. It’s sad, but what can he do? Instead of beauty, desire, or anything positive, he encounters a dead-eyed girl in a world that’s menacing in an indefinable way. Finally, he concludes this section by stating, “I pick up a stone and put it in my pocket, just in case.” He is part of this dead-eyed world, though it’s unpleasant to be so.
“The Nervous System” further develops the theme of a sometimes malevolent, confusing world: “The dead were getting//their makeup done,” the narrator says. Here, there’s glamour applied to death. And later, he reveals his idealistic side: “Children with old, puckered faces/peered out the windows//of the locked school.” What should be hope for the future instead turns children old and drains them.
In “Winterkill,” the narrator refers to his childhood dream of a home as being drawn in crayon, but it’s unfulfilling as an adult because the childish version lacks reality. In the title poem, Good gets to the bottom of all this, and we learn that these questions are about the nature of life and happiness. Sometimes, the true events of life are dark. But isn’t that what makes the brighter experiences all the more meaningful?
Good is a master of delivering profound meaning in very short poems. There’s a lot of humor and beautiful imagery in these poems. “The View from Highway 1 consists of four perfect lines:
A red tractor
nuzzles in a corner
of the bare field.
But to focus purely on certain images of alienation or violence is to miss the power of Good’s work. His narrators are idealistic; they’re dreamers who want to see beauty but are caught in a world that doesn’t seem to value beauty. So, like outlaws, they steal beauty from all around, and Good’s humor and eye for detail reveal it. As the collection progresses, Good writes of love, joy; he paints a true portrait of the world, emphasizing the beauty that others seem to be missing.