a father beats
When I was little, we’d help my grandpa scoop up buckets of live oysters in their shells from one of Tampa Bay’s causeways (they weren’t polluted back then—it was the Stone Age). Once home, we’d shuck them, slather them in horseradish sauce, and slurp them down as quickly as we could. The poems in Rob Plath’s new collection My Soul is a Broken Down Valise (Epic Rites Press 2019) are equally as visceral and delicious. They provide connoisseurs of such delights with an intense reading experience as well as fresh truths from a recognized master of the “raw” poem.
It’s hard to think of “raw” poetry without thinking of the original raw poet Charles Bukowski; Plath’s style is somewhat reminiscent of Bukowski’s work, but Plath adds twists and turns that are also uniquely his own. Plath’s speaker describes his own poetry as:
a brutal lantern
the dark waters
It can be refreshing and transformative to read poetry that has just one rule: Tell it like it is. Good raw poetry penetrates our shields and challenges our defenses, clichés, and pretenses. Plath’s speaker explains the reason that we need raw poems:
[when] yr literary
you’ll scream for
the edge of
a good raw poem
to slide across
let some goddamn
(“a good raw poem”)
Raw poetry slices our eyes open, similar to the scene in the 1929 Buñuel/Dali classic surrealist silent film Un Chien Andalou, where we see a razor about to slit open a woman’s eye, then a view of the moon obscured by a cloud. The speaker (and, presumably, Plath) takes his role as poet very seriously—the good raw poem should be the type of poem that’s so powerful and so real that it can operate to prevent a suicide (“poetry: a definition”).
Where do good raw poems come from? Here’s where Plath’s poetry gets imaginative. Perhaps poems are ejaculated (“uploading poems”) or excreted, “letting the barbs rip thru you / squeezing out blood & shit on the paper” (“barbed poetry”). Maybe they are imbued in the phlegm from the speaker’s lungs that he coughs up into a “spit cup,” about which the speaker says:
…is born deep
in the branches of
the wheezing lung-sacks
in the gut, the bowels
& these organs are
not pretty pink things
they are odious
they are slimy
they are oozing
(“my spit cup”)
When the speaker gets a new “poetry machine” (presumably, a typewriter), he hears Bukowski’s voice saying,
if you smash it a shitload
of more poems will come
(“a new poetry machine”)
Do you need to have a troubled childhood in order to become a good raw poet? That’s a good question. Plath credits his past with helping to mold him as a poet (“the price”). He apparently (at least according to his poems) comes from a dysfunctional family. The poems in My Soul is a Broken Down Valise generally don’t dwell on this issue. This collection of poems is not a narrative about overcoming abuse or the unsinkable human spirit—although it could have been. What it is is a collection of poems of witness, mostly showing what the poet is experiencing right now.
However, the poet does directly focus on his childhood abuse in a handful of poems. For example, he gives us the picture of his father’s explosion of rage when somebody cuts him off in traffic (“the temper”) and of the speaker’s younger self hiding in their dog’s house to escape his family’s drama (“among the pines”). The speaker reveals that, as an angry child, he “wished [his father] were dead” (“batting stones”). He says: “you can be hysterical / without screaming” (“card tables & makeshift ashtrays”). Breathing in the chain-smoking-fueled fumes of his mother and listening to his father’s “daily barrage” of curse words, the speaker explains, “this is how I grew” (“1969”).
Ultimately, in my view, the abuse hovers around all the poems in the book, providing a backdrop or back story. For this poet, the raw poems he writes transform his experiences of adversity, past and present. By writing poems that metaphorically have the keenest, sharpest edges, the poet fashions a weapon for himself, a “beautiful blade” that no mere knife can match (“the blade”).
The poems in My Soul is a Broken Down Valise are perhaps too intense for those who prefer to consume their poetry in harmless bytes. On the other hand, maybe we all need at least an occasional dose of raw poetry—for catharsis or cleansing of our poetry palates, not to mention our souls.
Don’t hold back. I advise you to get a copy of My Soul is a Broken Down Valise by Rob Plath, take a deep breath, crack open the book, and read a poem. You’re likely to find the poem slides down like a raw oyster. Savor the unique flavors.
Swallow and repeat.
You can buy My Soul is a Broken Down Valise by Rob Plath on Amazon
Rob Plath’s website is: https://www.robplath.com/
Art and photo credits: Rob Plath