BOOK REVIEW

The truth about the nightclub music scene, in verse

Posted Jan. 22, 2012, at 8:28 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 24, 2012, at 2:30 p.m.

“Clubland, Second Edition: New and selected poems” by Dave Morrison; Fighting Cock Press/Lulu Press, 2011; 54 pages, trade paperback, $14.95.

Dave Morrison’s poetic voice is unusual, at least for our corner of the world. His subject matter — recollections of the past, a favorite in creative writing programs for decades now — is fairly conventional but the material of the matter, at least in “Clubland,” is different. He wings back not into his misbegotten childhood or into fantasies on ancestors he never knew, but into his own youth as a minor rock star in the great Northeast.

He tells, in verse, actual stories about those days, which is refreshing, and what’s still more distinctive is that by and large he is talking not about himself, but about the characters and quirks of the music scene. And even when he does talk about himself, it’s not usually obvious because he clearly views himself as another one of the characters, just a little closer to the raw emotions.

And the rock and roll life, whether Rolling Stones-scale or New England nightclub-scale, is raw and emotional, make no mistake. “Clubland,” in this revised edition of tweaks and additions, wends among the highs and lows of those emotions with sensitivity and an eye for details that illuminate their humanity, whether musician, bartender, dancer or hanger-on. One memorable instance is in “Mysterious Gift,” which gives such clear shape to a girl seen among the dancers you almost think you know her:

They dress in bright colors, drink rum and cokes

She always gets carded because of her size

She doesn’t drink much and rarely smokes

So most of the time she’s the one who drives.

The rhythms through this poem angle bouncily toward end-rhymes, and in fact, in this collection a lot of labor has gone into these traditional formal aspects. A well-handled rap-like overture, “Intro: The RIFF,” opens the book, and the cleanest language appears when the poet finds the rhythms of natural, spoken diction without forcing words into unnatural phrasing or stresses. Although there are bumps and misses along the way, poems like “Songwriting after rehearsal” and the following lines from “Missing His Ex” (titles characteristically straight to the point) contain the whole package — sharp, revealing imagery in crisp and subtle but tightly rhythmic language:

the day cooled like a body on a slab

the coffee pot was empty, ashtray full

the walls inched slowly inward, air grew stale;

at seven he decided to go out.

Riding like a harmonic out of all this is a certain intangibility of energy. In bygone eras it was called “truth.” In the 1800s Edgar Allan Poe taught us that in poetry, what was called truth is actually an experience of beauty evoked by the musical properties of language. In the 20th century, critics and poets tried to ascribe the source of the beauty to the mechanical arrangement of the words. But it’s not that. It’s an intangible energy, like a harmonic, that rides a poet’s words themselves, not their arrangement, the way some guitarists’ riffs shake your blood while the riffs of even more technically capable guitarists don’t.

In Dave Morrison’s verses, the harmonics of that intangible energy vibrate stronger than in many poets, and I think I’m not the only one who’s noticed it. If you want to get a true feel for the 1980s Providence to Boston to Portland music scene, pick up “Clubland.” It will tell you, and more.

Morrison will be a judge in the Ellsworth Poetry Out Loud competition Feb. 15. “Clubland, Second edition” and other collections by Dave Morrison are available through lulu.com and dave—morrison.com.

Dana Wilde’s collection of essays, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available in paperback and electronically from Booklocker.com.

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