by W.S. Di Piero
McSweeney’s Books, 2014
65 pages / $15 Buy from McSweeney’s
Tombo is a book about place as much as anything. It’s about San Francisco. Many poems are about place – whether they are explicit about it or not. Di Piero is explicit in Tombo. W.S. Di Piero recently won the Ruth Lilley Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award, and writes for the New York Times, among other places. He is an incredibly distinguished poet and McSweeney’s bills him as “a master of the adjective, a master of sound and story.”
I’d never read anything by W.S. Di Piero before this book, which I read primarily at cafes not in San Francisco. Di Piero starts the book by addressing, you, the reader, “Life, as you say, my friend, / is lived in its transitions.” Life is funny like that. The first poem, The Running Dog, involves a brunch I could envy “A breakfast of poached eggs, / spiked coffee, newsy talk, / crushed sun behind the clouds, / marine layer vapors phasing / blue to green, and the body / quivers through its days.” In fact, like living in San Francisco and eating brunch, there’s a lot about the life of the poet that seems enviable, depending on your disposition.
I would highly recommend this book if you appreciate poemy poems full of foghorns, flowers, and random interjections in other languages. Di Piero prides himself on sound and music, and there is a certain music in these poems – while they’re unrhymed free verse, there’s a recognizable rhythm and music throughout.
The poem Sleeping Potions reminds me of a story I heard from a local bike mechanic: A man came into his bike shop, and took a used bike out for a test-ride. The man never came back. He had left his bag with a laptop, credit cards, wallet, and other valuable things, at the bike shop as collateral / insurance. A few days later the bike shop gets a call. The police had found the man “several hundred miles” north of the bike shop – he had no explanation for what he had done – he didn’t know or remember the previous several days. The bike was returned to the shop and the man got his bag and valuables back. But what happened between the shop and hundreds of miles north?
And what’s happened in Tombo during the intervening fugue paragraph? We’ve moved from Hayes Street, to Duboce Triangle, to the N-Judah. We’ve got a look at Market and the Mission and Dolores Park. Di Piero has said that his books “start out as miscellanies.” The poems in Tombo don’t have the kind of narrative arc or grand teleological direction. They’re brief meditations. “If my poems come out right, they tell what it feels like to live in a world of troubled relatedness,” Di Piero said in an interview. I like this idea of troubled relatedness – and I think it’s an interesting way to talk about poems.
Isn’t a poem generally a collection of objects caught in a troubled relatedness or interconnectedness? I think it’s possible to think of poetry simply as that. In Di Piero’s work sometimes this manifests itself as lists. “Stingy brims, flip-flops, and guayaberas,” or “Acid overnight coffee, fig jam, her star-flecked pajama bottoms’ flannel firmament.” But it’s hard to get over the fact that this is the San Francisco of someone who is overall doing pretty ok, and overall there’s a level of beauty and music and harmony emphasized in Tombo, which could be accused of ignoring the dirty, ugly, and undesirable of the place where the book is primarily set.
In the title poem of the volume, a narrator looks with some bemusement at someone in Safeway who is probably suffering from mental illness. It’s a poem that’s hard to nail down; what is the tone and what is the attitude? Where does it leave us?
In Safeway yesterday, a young man sat on the floor,
pulled off his shoes, granted audience to us,
his fellow seekers, and picked his naked feet.
He smiled, our brother, at the story he told
of deliverance at the hand of Master Tombo,
lord and creator, whose round energy
lives in us surrounds us surrounds our milk
our butter our eggs: see Him there,
in the slurpee glaze upon the freezer case?
In that elder by the yoghurt shelves?
I believed his happiness, and coveted
a tidy universe. He picked his feet
while a child whimpered by the melons, her nanny’s
mango aura made the cold blown air
touch my brain, I smelled myself in my aging body
and felt my silly bones collapse again.
I wanted Tombo’s dispensation to save
this faint believer and the indifferent world
that rivers through and past me. Down my aisle
lavender respired from the flower stall
and security spoke kind words to our prophet.
Oh I love and hate the fickle messy wash
of speech and flowers and winds and tides,
and crave plain rotund stories
to justify our continuity…
You’ll have to buy the book to read the rest. What makes me so uneasy in this poem is exactly antithetical to the urge to acknowledge “troubled relatedness.” Here the narrator expresses a want for less mess, for tidiness. The “prophet” of Tombo apparently has it really easy because of his world view and is kindly told to leave the Safeway, but the no doubt friendly security guards. One wonders where said prophet proceeds from there, as the narrator is lost in reverie and nostalgia for childhood.
Di Piero said in the interview with McSweeney’s, who you’ll remember, published the book being reviewed: “I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry by poets under, say, fifty, but much of what I do read feels cool and soundless. My vague sense is that poetry since the early 1980s has become more concept-driven, and talky but not very sensitive to sound, texture, beat.” I’ll let you make your own judgments on Tombo, and the cool soundlessness of contemporary poetry, but I’ll send you off with one complete poem from Di Piero.
THERE WERE SUCH THINGS
I knew the words would be waiting for me,
how sounds play in the mouth and mind,
each time a different estero in my heart
your bracelet’s lost coral scale
your broken hairpin
the lipstick smudge
sliding off torn tissue
an even each time, thing by thing,
word by word. I knew these creatures, as before,
would be waiting in their lovely names,
in dowitcher willet whimbrel coot
or snipe or curlew, that I could speak and speak.
Where were you that day?
Why weren’t you with me?
What waited there was something else.
Muscling nonstop around each other,
dingy leopard sharks shadowed
the shallows, light dying on their backs.
They seemed to be themselves the moving waters.
They were the swimming absence of the words
they drove away, part of the new vocabulary
of exclusions, of what might have been birds.
Leif Haven is a writer living in Oakland. He edits a small press called Persistent Editions.