(This review was initially posted to the poetics list.)
Propriety dictates that I observe at the outset that O. Jam Atoe, author of My Friend, the Poet, is not only a very good poet, but a very good friend. I have wanted to review O. Jam's poetry for some time now, hence I am pleased to have finally been given the opportunity to do so.
The 57-poem sequence that comprises My Friend, the Poet interrogates the fundamental poetic conundrum announced by the book's title: to what advantage may a poet presume to write about his (or her) fellow poets, and their poetry, when such poets are also his (or her) friends? This theme is granted its most direct elaboration in the collection's first poem, "Bob's Cousin":
had a way with words.
Was it Sam
or his words
that I liked
The apparent simplicity of these lines belies the undercurrent of doubt that I daresay we must all experience to some degree when in the company of those whose personalities are as congenial as their "way[s] with words." Indeed, as I composed this review, I found myself pondering whether O. Jam's poetry or personality was the more compelling. Owing to the well-groomed air of indifference with which he has greeted the various accolades obtaining from his published work - and note the persistent insouciance with which he has propped himself before the public eye - the man himself may be said to be something of a work of art.
He manages somehow to exude the appropriate mannerism at every locution, inserting his fastidious carriage into the very quality of his conversation. His is a delicate intermingling of sangfroid and discretion, the latter particularly evident when counseling others on possible investment strategies.
And in fact, as one might expect, one of the poems in this collection addresses with due restraint the self-eliding poise attendant to the conceptual charge of poet-as-poetry:
The poet is
what he writes
what he is.
And again, here is O. Jam on the contemporary alpha-fiduciary convolutions of the global marketplace:
Woods, or words?
I said we're in the woods
especially when friends are involved.
So take your business elsewhere
The poet here is clearly echoing a sentiment long felt (e.g.) among the last century's entrepreneurial classes: when it comes right down to it, best not to make too much of a friend's words (poet or no). Where money (or other cultural capital) is at stake, all bets are off, for words on paper (a wood product) are no more a guarantee of loyalty than are words "said." That this necessarily complicates (of course) such assertions within the poem is a paradox regarding which attentive readers will no doubt derive many hours of contemplative satisfaction.
I was most moved by the following, though, a passionate, perceptive gem from one who, I would venture, counts me as among his most demanding poet-friend-critics:
Be a man about it
I told her
keep it to yourself
and write it down later.
The strength of these lines resides in their assignation of utter resilience to the character of the addressee, for whom words inevitably become a calculus of pent-up emotion, tranquilized through sustained recollection. (And good advice, at that: this review was conceived only after a self-imposed one-week exile from the habiliments of the writing life.)
The book concludes on a resoundingly reflexive note, troping both on the latent double of "my friend" (clearly also the poet himself) and the potential triple of the reader-reviewer, who may very well be a (poet-)friend:
Get lost, friend.
I want to be by
The ambiguous valence of "by / myself" suggests that the poet is remarking apostrophically both on the solitude requisite to artistic production and on the vexed notion of authorship that emerges from the collaborative imperatives of friendship. Talk about integrity. Thus does the volume augur a refreshingly honest relationship between a writer and his (or her) readers, whereby what is written is written to be read only by his (or her) friends, who are (it is to be hoped) poets themselves.
This is a stunning collection, and lives up (like the poet) to the promise of those various accolades (as above) - chief among which a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship - which O. Jam has garnered since his graduation five years ago from the esteemed MFA program at Bent U. A younger poet who will no doubt be in the running at Yale for many years to come, I count this collection, as my friendship with this man, as among my most prized possessions.
(Further discussion of cronyism in reviewing can be sent to ebr.)