This debut collection contains what it says on the front cover: “Poems on Love, Loss, Poverty and War”. What the cover doesn't reveal is the many voices within its pages. By turns the voice is that of the hard-boiled social observer, political commentator, historian, lyric bard, young lover, then again, not-so-young lover, but there is always the recognizable timbre of the master spellbinder running through the words.
Although he claims no literary background, Frank Scarangello has a visceral understanding of what makes a poem and how to bring it to life and make it accessible. Art, and that includes poetry which needs to be explained to the reader misses the mark. Frank throws bullseyes.
He does this by a simple and elegant use of language with the exception of the Latin phrases in “The Acolyte-1951”, and the German in “I Heard Marlene Dietrich Sing” which are set in the context, so even if you don't know exactly what the words mean, they make sense. By simple language, I mean accessible language. These poems don't require having Roget's Thesaurus or a dictionary at the ready, but they are by no means unsophisticated.
This accessiblity makes an for easy passage when the poem takes the reader out of their personal comfort zone. In particular, the poem “Picasso in Kandahar”springs to mind. In dry, rather matter-of-fact tones, we are shown
A Picasso face
with one eye a piece of nose
a dented skull distorted melted
cubism done all in red black and blue
one hand one and a half limbs.
Most people will know what a Picasso should look like, even without ever having seen one in real life. This is relatively familiar. It is an accurate description and the reader is okay with that, then the poetry happens. Having drawn the reader in, the poet skews the angle of the familiar and changes the context in the next lines:
A rearranged montage
of her soldier son.
But by now the reader is already hooked. The poem progresses, in the same simple, elegant language to take the reader to several different levels. The voice of the poet demands, in tones most reasonable and polite, that the reader take on the skin of the mother in the poem and think.
For my money this is Frank Scarangello at his hardball best.
This poet doesn't just throw hardballs however. From “Picasso in Khandahar” in the turn of a few pages to a complete change of pitch in “Describing Her in Words”, which is slow and sensual as stirring a pot of chocolate over a low flame and shoots straight to the heart. Both this poem and “The Longest Night” call to mind the erotic poetry of Nizar Qabbani in their celebration of the female and lyrical desire.
The pace changes and the reader finds his or herself in a New York cab (Streets of Gold), a crowded graveyard (Niches and Stones), Drinking with Art Majors, on the road (Keeping up with the Joads) and Dancing to Perfidia in Addis Ababa and after the last poem disappointment sets in that the trip is (for now) over.
On first reading this collection, I found the order of the poems too random. With the second reading, I decided that the randomness only enchanced my experience as a reader. Frank is a seasoned world traveler. His poetry took me all over the place without my ever having to go out the front door and the random switching of location and mood just made it all the more exhilarating.
These poems leave the reader wondering if the work is autobiographical. In my correspondence with Frank Scarangello, I managed to slip in the question. He told me that some are, some aren't. It doesn't really matter. This poet can write a novel in a few lines and you'll be inclined to just go with the magic.
Initial Verses: A Collection of Poems on Love, Loss, Poverty and War
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (March 30, 2012)
(crossposted from Our Salon)