Paul Pines
Marsh Hawk Press ($15)

by Jon Curley

“The future is only the past turned around to look at itself,” instructs Fanny Howe in her recent memoir The Winter Sun. Paul Pines’s poetry invokes this elegant truth with forceful, sometimes feverish pitch. His new volume, Last Call at the Tin Palace, projects and introspects, cultivating a memory-jogging archive of wondrous sweep. Acts of remembrance become studies in reclamation; the subjects and places these poems consider are summoned with a boundless faith in their preservation.

In the 1970s, Pines owned a jazz club in Manhattan called The Tin Palace, whose spirit is rooted deeply in the poems here. These poems sing, reveling, reckoning, and fondly recalling spaces for devotional reflection. Apart from his preoccupation with song, musicians, and the club atmosphere, Pines assembles lines of lyrical fortitude that vary tonal registers but retain flowing cadences and exclamatory bursts by “the player / playing // the player / being played.”

The book is partly dedicated “To my ghosts”; the revenants to which Pines pays homage are a slew of former friends, musical and poetic mentors, Vietnam vets, and associates from jazz dens, street corners, bar stools, and imaginary zones of contact. These remembrances are nothing so didactic as life lessons, but insist on framing their contents as aggregates of experience conjured to showcase their ongoing relevance to the poet. Exacting attentiveness is a signature feature, and with the candor comes an almost dialogic encounter, as if Pines wishes to beckon his subjects into the present as the reader delves into the past to greet them.

These votive chronicles of a poet’s life meander spiritedly and with almost journalistic flourish. If Pines is indebted to the local New York jazz scene he helped create, he is also indebted to his friend and mentor Paul Blackburn, whose posthumous The Journals is surely a touchstone for many of these poems. Generous use of exclamation points, zigzag pagination, rhetorical asides, dates, and historical allusions—all characteristic of Blackburn’s work—invite comparison but in no way denotes imitative reduction. Pines has taken the colloquial and encompassing vision of his forbear and charged it with his own.

Because Pines roves widely and noisily through the past, the poems jostle each other, upending any smoothness or drab continuity. Moreover, the illustrations by Wayne Atherton—dizzying collages that echo the poetic content with anarchic charm—tend to infuse the poems with a kind of grounded dissonance. Overall, Last Call at the Tin Palace venerates the micro and macro phenomena which crowd the poets’ lives—his and others—and demonstrates a pluralistic fullness that makes the collection entertaining. Yet for all the ecstasy there is also elegy, and the recorder of past lives must blaze a trail of tears as well as paths of illumination. Paul Pines, poet-archivist, manages to capture “a quicksilver tear / in its atmospheric gaze,” guaranteeing that the present looks back at itself truthfully, forcefully, and with appropriate sentiment.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010