New York Quarterly Books
Reviewer: Ace Boggess
If Ted Jonathan’s poetry collection, Run, were a novel, it would be described as a coming-of-age story—49 poems that escort the reader on a journey through childhood struggles, a teenager’s coping, and the finding-oneself of early adulthood. Jonathan reflects on a schoolboy crush at the time of the Kennedy assassination (“Reunion”), early sexual encounters (“Getting Some”), and a parent/teacher conference resulting in praise (“What Mattered Most”). From later in his life, he describes a hard-edged encounter with the cops (“The Suspect”) and his experience of feeling out of place while at a theater for the live broadcast of the Frazier/Ali fight (“Thrilla in Manilla”). Sometimes, as in the lyrical “truths & other lies,” Jonathan uses the various parts of his past to convey whatever lessons he might have learned:
and next class
is the one time
per week you
the girl who
rock ‘n’ rolls
you must lie.
forge a doctor’s
note to stay
out of gym.
On whole, these poems tell the story of a life, doing so in often explicit detail. In “Elementary School,” for example, he displays a cynical nostalgia while pointing his camera’s lens and taking a subtle, subversive snapshot of primary education and the jingoistic indoctrination of kids:
white shirts & green
ties to assembly,
all of us singing
of stout hearted
men, who’d stand
shoulder to shoulder
& fight to the end…
It was cooler to like
The Byrds, dumb
“Mr. Tambourine Man,”
than Barbara Mason’s
heady & soulful
“Yes, I’m Ready.”
Plotnik could be hung
by his collar on a hook
and left there all day
in a closed closet.
Everyone had a right
to their own opinion.
And everyone had one.
These are narrative poems. The language, never forced, always flows, carrying the reader along as if through another compelling chapter in a thriller. The images are crisp, and the lines snap, but always there remains a Meursault-like existential hero trapped at the center of it all, as in “Tractus,” where the narrator describes quitting his job and taking a poetry class:
I rode the unbridled guitar bursts of grunge king
Neil Young and wrote lyrics that sang. Another,
a la Randy Newman, jabbing needles into that what
needs needling. Cut costs like the dry cleaners and
cable. Dropped insurance. Read Coleridge and Buk.
Got a part-time job doing quality control at a Pez
factory. And wrote a song like no one but me.
However, Jonathan rarely stops with merely his own story. He populates his poems with diverse characters: bowlers, gamblers, a lonely boy with an overprotective mother. These are real people doing real—often unpleasant—things. Again, from “Tractus”:
…There was a cop, a supermodel,
and an astrophysicist in the class. A woman seated
up front peppered him with daddy, daddy please notice
me questions. He threw her out. It warmed my heart.
Here was my chance to get something right.
As a reviewer, I instinctively want to call these confessional poems, but I resist giving them that label. They seem more personal, intimate, detailed. If these are confessions, they are confessions of the sort one only speaks to oneself, maybe alone in a crowded room or while daydreaming in the shower. In “Poe Park,” for example, Jonathan turns the acts of buying dope and playing music into an almost religious experience:
It had nothing to do with kicks.
Just the need to slow the invasive
train of repetitious thoughts rolling
unrelentingly through my head.
Outside of Poe Park I’d usually
be able to cop downers.
This hot night was no exception.
Stepped into the empty park to swallow
the promise of stupor.
Block-long, it was mostly concrete
and broken glass. It was 1976, and
I couldn’t care less that within a mile,
landlords were torching buildings
into cash and the Yanks were making
a pennant run.
Cut across the park…
At the far end, sitting on the stoop of an
old white-frame cottage, was a tattered
lone soul playing guitar and singing. Long
limp blond hair hid much of his face, as he
sang Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa.
“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail…”
One thing that ties these poems together is music. Running throughout the book are hints of songs, a few scattered lines, the names of bands immediately calling up a mood or certain time. This can be seen in the excerpts above, but it continues, often subtly, in verse after verse. When, in “Dominion,” Jonathan says “until I, like George Jefferson / moved on up,” the subconscious immediately conjures that familiar TV theme song. When he describes how a girl he liked “favored The Rolling Stones,” an image of her pops into the reader’s head, along with an idea of where the narrator hopes this story will go.
Jonathan keeps going. In “Quietism,” he describes Karen Carpenter’s singing as “worthy of Homer’s / sirens.” In “Polio,” he discusses Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, The Clash, and Lead Belly, clearly having savored the songs of each. It seems he wants to share the music that made life bearable. Run is a book with its own soundtrack. It works. We, as readers, relate to that. We hear it in the background without noticing how it infiltrates and guides each scene—at least until later, when the theme to The Jeffersons continues to play in our heads.
Jonathan, perhaps as much a deejay as a poet, carefully shares his story by offering these familiar riffs and crooning ballads as hooks, connecting readers to his life with things they already know and love from their own.