Essendo Morti – Being Dead
Jeanpaul Ferro
Goldfish Press Publications
ISBN Number: 078098246699Z

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

          “Written in the post-9/11 world of the September 11th terrorist attacks this collection looks at the heart-breaking ideals of an America that only the dead know now.”

          The above quotation is poet Jeanpaul Ferro’s description of his latest poetry book Essendo Morti – Being Dead and can be found on the book’s back jacket. Upon reading it, and after finishing the book, I was surprised to see how far my estimation of the collection diverged from Ferro’s (and perhaps his publisher’s). While there is certainly much darkness, confusion, and heartbreak to be found in Essendo Morti, and while the voices most frequently heard are those of the dead or of memory, it never occurred to me that the book was about a vanished America remembered only by the dead; or, if one looks at the quote from another angle, even about an existing America so confusing or corrupted that only the dead can fully understand it. Rather, the sense of disillusionment I read in much of Essendo Morti seemed much too immediate and much too common to post-9/11 art and writing to be the province of the deceased, or, really, all that different from the feelings of outrage and sorrow our perpetually out of control nation has inspired since at least the Great Depression.

          Perhaps I have misread Ferro’s thesis. Perhaps our difference in perspective is the result of a generational divide: I came of age during the selfish 80s and cynical 90s, and an America of commonly held ideals has always been dead for me. And though I do not know Ferro’s age, the poems about the Korean War scattered like shrapnel throughout his collection make me think he is at least twenty years my senior. Whatever the cause, I found Essendo Morti to be more of a profound meditation on our nation’s collective sorrow and frustration in a new, perilous, and isolating century than I found it to be a nostalgic treatise on a country long transformed.

          Though, then again, the two may not be so very different.

          True to promise, Ferro addresses 9/11 and the world changed at multiple points throughout Essendo Morti, in poems like the punchy “Ground Zero,” about the still-abiding fear among many New Yorkers that every passing plane could signal destruction, and the sober “The Hours Happened (9/11)” (here reproduced in full), which perfectly describes the shock felt in those first few days after the World Trade Center’s collapse. I have read few poems that so adeptly capture the shock and the waking nightmare of that time—and simultaneously the shock and terror the United States is still experiencing.

We drove out of Vendian and out into Ordovician, 
The air moist and warm blowing through our hair, 
New York City rising in gray vaults off on the horizon, 
Abandoned dreams behind us in our rear view mirror,
We stepped all through the hot ash after reaching ground
zero, Leaving only our footprints to prove that we were
there, A part of me couldn’t grasp what had just happened, 
You looked at me and said: “Can you describe all of this?” I
looked over at you and I said: “I don’t think I ever can.”

          Fascinatingly, the book is structured so that 9/11’s shockwave ripples simultaneously into the present and the past, to the horrors of a North Korean POW prison in “Dreams of Men,” the messy Second Gulf War in “Iraqi Occupation” where “Bombed out cars look like movie relics,/ like they could have been left on the moon,” and even to the greed and obscenity of Wall Street in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”—a poem either written in honor of the 2008 recession or eerily prefiguring it (the book’s 2009 publication date makes it hard to be certain). Either way, I suspect it will be remembered as one of the first published poems to deal with the mindset and practices that brought the States into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Here, Ferro ingeniously describes Wall Street in somewhat Miltonic terms as a bejeweled “pandemonium” populated by

confidence men who are good at what they do
only in a world full of confidence;
pulling out gold bars from out of the decks, 
pulling out a thousand braids of America’s 
hair that has grown long now;
trying to make us feel not so lonely—the way God
gets lonely after he looks at us for too long;

buying and selling thin air like the thin air in a bar
after the drunken soldiers have arrived;
          And when this demonic city-within-a-city ruptures, Ferro prognosticates…not prophetic doom exactly, but something much more profound: the futility of the entire enterprise, given not only the transitory nature of financial institutions, but the quietude, perhaps even eternal nature, of the human soul.

but then the honeycomb breaks apart, wet, like
under an old log;
glistening down river for a while until the warm
summer waters recall all of it—like it never even
all the screams staining the inside of our souls,
where it stays quiet amid the ashes piled high along
the side streets where we once roamed.

          While the horrors of wars past and present and the relatively new horrors of this round of financial carelessness are certainly disturbing and cause for disillusionment, this horror and disillusionment are, sadly, not new to the American psyche—though, certainly, the recent Iraqi War and economic crisis have caused Americans of all ages (and the young particularly) to rethink our follies and our priorities. Rather, a separate set of poems in Essendo Morti seemed, to me, to comment more on America’s dying, dead, and in-flux ideals. I speak of the book’s poems about women, poems which actually greatly outnumber those focusing on any explicitly political subject.

          In these poems, Ferro’s (ostensibly male) speakers alternately celebrate, objectify, lust after, and genuinely love women, in much the same way America as a nation has done for a little over two centuries. Some of these women are quite literally the dead, such as the rain-soaked ghost in “The Apparition” or the girl clutching strawberries in “Throw Like a Girl,” who appears to be both spirit and a symbol of a more innocent America that is rapidly fading. Others are disaffected, Paris Hiltonesque celebrity/socialite/models (“The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish was Not Fulfilled”), accident victims (“July 5th”) or, most often, wives, girlfriends, mistresses, or lovers remembered, as in “Island Songs.” In this piece (here reproduced in full), a speaker recalls a particularly gentle vacation spent with a woman he loved:

Warm winds 
and the early morning blue sky,
the sheer joy of Bob Marley 
playing on the radio inside,
crème de la crème, 
because we hear the voices of children playing,
I look at your beautiful face,
all tan from the sun,
I feel 2 ½ years of music 
inside of my body,
you move closer, our hands touch, 
your lips touch my lips,
we hear Zimbabwe 
coming on the radio now, 
you push back from me and say:
“Let’s go back inside and pretend
that today is yesterday again.”

          Most of these poems about women feel, to me, as if they were written from an older viewpoint—indeed, perhaps from that of the dead mentioned in the book’s title. Yet, I detect little to no trace of longing for the good old days when “men were men and women were women” or when “women knew their place.” Rather, these pieces strike me as both the memories of long-lost men and, overall, a meditation on the way that men have viewed women throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st.

          While Essendo Morti is impeccably structured and its pages home to many provoking poems, a few nonetheless felt tinny, even out of place. The use of Egyptian embalming practices as an extended metaphor for a lonely lover’s memories in “El-Iskandariya,” for example, fell particularly flat. Likewise, some poems, such as “Talking to Yahweh at Raudhatain,” a piece about the carnage in Iraq, offered little freshness on the subject. But overall, I found that the book’s stronger pieces outweighed its weaker offerings.

          And overall, I think that the collection is much less bleak than its title or thesis implies. In “Manhattan,” my favorite selection, Ferro chronicles the beauty and squalor of the borough most devastated by the 9/11 attacks. Proclaiming it “Shakespeare on a bad night,” he leads the reader through its cacophony of architecture, up the monolithic Empire State Building, through Chinatown, Little Italy, and the harbors, among all the people of various races and ethnicities who call it home—the honest workers and the rapists and murderers alike—their dreams of fame and fortune, or even just their desires to see a good ballgame. And while the city remains “a terrorist’s target ground zero; a bull’s eye; fool’s gold;” it is, nonetheless, not to be given up on. Ferro closes the poem with these reassuring words:

It is truly going to be okay.

          While readers of various generations will probably draw different conclusions about the nature and tenor of Essendo Morti, I believe that this ability to inspire different impressions is one of the book’s strengths. While I think Ferro’s work crosses multiple interests, I recommend it primarily to those who enjoy contemporary American poetry and those poetry readers who ponder America’s history and its current sense of direction.

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