Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
To read George Drew’s Drumming Armageddon is to remember what it’s like to hear the blues for the first time, or to recall those teenage years, making out with a girl in the backseat of a car, or to recant the type of meal that your mother cooked in the kitchen. Drew’s collection is, on the one hand, a celebration of 20th Century music forms, specifically blues, jazz, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. There are tributes to the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, and Eric Clapton, to name a few. Yet the poems also use music to explore memory, especially youth and family. Yes, Drumming Armageddon is a tribute to the poet’s musical influences, but more so, it’s a book that links those songs and musicians to a personal narrative.
One of the poems that best exemplifies Drew’s knack for wedding musical references with personal memory is “Oatmeal,” which conjures a past domestic setting. Mama bakes biscuits, while the radio plays Arthur Godfrey in the kitchen. The opening stanza presents a cold New York winter, but that’s contrasted with the warm domestic space. Drew writes:
Outside the New York winter turns the world
white, brownstones burly thugs in the early
morning light, the eight steps leading down
to the Italian bully’s slick and treacherous,
and inside up three flights in our apartment
Mama’s in the kitchen with the radio set
on Arthur Godfrey playing his stupid ukulele
and like sleet scratching on a window singing,
and Mama warm and doughy as the biscuits
browning in the oven measuring out just
the right amount of sugar, adding in milk,
and stirring oh the little rafts of butter
in the thick and bubbling glop of Quaker’s Oats.
Mama in the kitchen getting it right, getting it right.
Despite the sleet sliding down the window and the white world, the poet primarily recalls Mama, “warm and doughy” in the kitchen, “getting it right, getting it right.” Furthermore, even if the poet couldn’t stand hearing Arthur Godfrey’s “stupid ukulele” as a kid, the music is embedded in a positive memory. Another trait of Drew’s collection is that the poems sing. There’s a tightness and musicality to the lines. In “Oatmeal,” there is the simple blues-like repetition of “getting it right, getting it right” that concludes the poem, but there is also plenty of alliteration and assonance, such as “brownstones burly thugs.”
In other poems, such as “The Blues Are Like a Shoelace” and “The Sensible Daddy Blues,” Drew adopts the blues form outright to riff on what the blues means to him. In the first poem, he writes, “The blues are like a shoelace, / sometimes double knotted and tight, / sometimes so long and loose / they trip you up, send you sprawling // full out, flat on your shining face. / But that’s all right, the blues are about / down not up, about rich and thick / like Mama’s banana cream pudding.” By the final stanzas, the poem expands upon on how much the speaker loves the music form, more than “the Lord on Sunday,” a woman “hotter than the Hell / the preacher preaches about,” and even more than his “old lady.” It’s a fun poem, one that uses the form of the music to praise it.
Other musicians and songs trigger memories of adolescence. In “Why I’m Sad about the Death of Paul Revere,” the speaker recounts making out with a girl in a ’50 Chevy, while “Louie, Louie” blasted on the radio. Initially, as with “Oatmeal,” the speaker expresses some disdain for “that / damned” music that repeated on every AM station. But the music reflects a positive memory and coming-of-age moment. The speaker calls the song “that soundtrack of my first real sex, / on one October night under Oregon stars ….” So, even if the speaker never liked the song, he does feel some sorrow upon the musician’s death, recalling his gray Chevy and that girl from Freshman English I. This poem specifically is one of the most relatable in the book. We all have our own “soundtrack of sex,” a song that brings us back to our teenage years, to that boy or girl that we crushed on and one of our first sexual encounters. It’s an incredibly effective narrative poem.
Other poems are fawning odes and tributes to musicians, including ones that have come and gone. Sometimes a greater appreciation for the musician comes with age and time. This is especially clear in “I Know You’re in Detroit,” a tribute to Aretha Franklin. Sometimes it’s not possible to fully comprehend a musician’s influence and legacy until their passing. Drew writes in the second stanza: “Aretha, I apologize for having never written a poem / for or about you, not in all the Hit Parades of years / I’ve grooved to you and your soulful music. I admit, / I’ve written many about many of your peers, / some equal to you in their various musical ways, / some not even close.” Those lines may be an apology, yes, for not praising her more while she was alive, but they’re also a nod to her huge influence. The closing lines are a fine tribute: “Even as you lie bedridden / there in the shadow of Motown, this latecomer poem, / unlike any others I might have written, catalogs nothing / less than the entire opus of the entirely beautiful you.”
Drumming Armageddon is a wonderful celebration of music, rich with personal memory. There are stunning odes to the likes of Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin, while other poems demystify guitar gods like Eric Clapton, reminding us that he too is human and suffered immense pain, due to the loss of his son. The collection contains whiffs of childhood memories, like the scent of Mama’s biscuits in the oven. There are poems set in the backseat of a Chevy, under Oregon stars, while “Louie, Louie” rocks on the radio. There is an acknowledgement, too, that some musical personas and songs can’t be fully understood and appreciated until one is a bit older. Overall, Drumming Armageddon has a lot of swagger. It reminds us that the old cliché, “music is the soundtrack of our lives,” is very much true. Give these poems a read, and then, make a playlist of your favorite songs and see what memories they document.