Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008) and the forthcoming critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2010). An instructor at Loyola University, Chicago, Dew also reviews books for Rain Taxi Review of Books and art for Newcity Chicago. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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This slim, sensual set of place-based poems, written at a window-desk in the village of Brucciano, in the Tuscan Alps, stand as the best sort of souvenirs—moments of experience, honed by reflection; attempts to capture the passing pleasures of life as, itself, a visit, a temporary stay. The writing, while sometimes flat, sometimes derivative, so visibly represents its own craftsmanship that these potential weaknesses become, in the context of this little book, like so-called imperfections in a plank of wood—the very whorls and warped tracks of grain that give character. The comparison with the physical is no stretch here, for not only are these poems concerned with the physical (a record of the progressing courses of a long, good meal; notes on the paths of barn swallows, their cries), the book itself is a beautiful little physical object, in gorgeous LTC Jenson type with a cover printed on a Vandercook press at the Western New York Book Arts Center. David McNamara, the designer, has created a small stitched volume reminiscent of embossed leather, the heavy cream pages of its interior marked with a script that feels antique, but in the strongest way, like an old farm implement of wine decanter that, while old, has yet to be surpassed in function. A very Brucciano feel, Crowe might say, and it certainly adds to the experience of savoring these pieces about women slapping laundry against stones or men dealing with boars in their arbor. One hungers to hear more of the voices of Brucciano, though, or for some imagined entrance into their consciousness. The murmur of conversation, with laughter, from the piazza, is a central image here, but we encounter it always from some way away, with a narrator who wants to achieve a kind of omniscient stance in regard to this cosmos of grappa and scorpions but who remains, always, an outsider, or, in another valence, a guest. One poem, a scattershot list of enthusiastic questions, stringing together images from across the book, goes a way toward showing this, but pulls back, occluding the first person. It is a minor quibble with this book, but, I think, a larger point, because while Crowe and his partner were—as he says in the introduction—“privy to evening conversations and local gossip in the piazza; were special invited quests to gourmet Sunday meals...and became new naturalists” of the place as well, these roles are rather different. The poetry here is written more from the naturalist’s point of view—withdrawn or altogether invisible, witnessing, presenting facts about the weather and the world—instead of the guest’s, which is itself not the same as that semi-anonymous “I” who can write “I watch her as I write / at my window-desk.” The outsider who has come to the mountains at leisure, to pen poems and sample the local wine, to be treated to the hospitality of the villagers and try to record their stories, their way of life—the exploration, too, of this position remains the unfinished task of this small book. In short, these pieces read as a prelude—or, as Crowe would surely prefer, “offerings of antipasti.” There is more meat, from this experience of Brucciano, to be served, and readers will surely savor it along with the poet. In the meantime, this lushy designed little collection is worth a visit.
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