Mike Lane, They Can Keep the Cinderblock, Exot Books, 2012
Reviewed by Elmae Passineau
It was the title of the book, sight unseen, that drew me to it. The quirky They Can Keep the Cinderblock by Mike Lane gave rise to an immediate curiosity, which was enchantingly fulfilled with the poem “First Rummage Sale of Spring”:
The swan posed
at the entrance
of her parents’ garden
for over forty years,
so it pained her to see it here,
at a rummage sale, south of town.
its mate and pedestals gone.
Those days, though chipped
and faded, still float through.
So she’s going to buy
the old bird back, for all of
seven bucks, maybe haggle them
down to five. They can keep
the cinder block.
And then I studied the cover photo, also by Mike Lane, and there it was, the swan planter with the peeling paint, the ragged plaster edges, the cracked graceful neck, sitting on a dirty concrete block.
With poetry and all art, of course we are drawn to what speaks to us. And for me the “truth line” was “Those days, though chipped / and faded, still float through.” Referencing both the swan and her memories, I imagine, she buys back the swan of her parents’ garden. Because all memories over time become chipped and faded and because we cannot keep the people, we keep their things. And so I keep my mother’s celluloid “agnes” pin and occasionally listen to my father’s polkas, and the fading memories are brushed briefly with color.
The only mystery that remains is how did that one line, “They can keep the cinder block,” out of all 27 poems in the book, become its title? I like to wonder about that.
Poems of hidden little truths and perhaps longings and memories draw in the reader to this poet’s lines and then send her to her own truths. In “His Has No Number,” Lane writes,
Mother died at 84, two days before
I can’t remember exactly
when father died.
His day isn’t framed in anything
but sadness and the shower
where no one could hear me.
These last two lines are the “truth lines” for me. But then Lane lightens the mood. In 20 years of dreams, he says, his father never spoke, though his mother did.
And on her very first visit calmly asked,
“Can you see I’ve lost some weight?”
I picked her up by the waist, like in the movies,
and said “yes I can.” Then she was gone,
hopefully to tell the old man
to loosen up his lips.
Although perhaps it is the reader’s father’s death date that is seared into her brain and the mother’s date that must be checked in the birthday date book to be sure. And the father who speaks in dreams, and the mother who never comes. And what does it all mean? It sets one to wondering, as poetry should.
In “In Support of the Truth,” each of four verses ends with the repetition of “just for the sake of…” The final verse says,
I’d love to see the vertical strip of four,
of father and I crammed into a draped booth,
that took black and whites and made us look
unnaturally tanned but naturally thin.
Me, big toothed and happy, just for the sake of him.
And so, keeping the title in mind, I wonder yet again. Is this a happy child, grinning with pleasure in that circumscribed space tight with Dad? Or does “just for the sake of him” imply something else? I like how Lane places the reader in time with the photo booth and identifies the child’s age with just “big toothed.”
Another poignant narrative is “The Wing-Bud Brotherhood”:
Every spring for sixty-five years he has sprouted
feather wing-buds on the high back
near his shoulders. They itch terribly
but wither and die within weeks.
Now that the snow and clouds have
dissolved he feels less grounded.
So three days a week, for eight months
he flies to McDonald’s in his Mustang
to share a cup of high octane-joe and an English muffin
with the rest of the aces. They trade stories
that seldom vary, of war and women
and crisscrossed skies full of free men.
We’ve all seen this gang of old men with their coffee cups and wrinkles, balding or graying in their faded windbreakers, at a local restaurant. They eye the other patrons as they come through the door, almost proprietarily, refill their mugs, and talk of old wars, fishing trips, and maybe beautiful women they have known.
They’re our fathers. They are us.
Mike Lane’s poems provide delicious food for thought and introspection about one’s own experiences, but they also deliver shining examples of amazing imagery. Consider the spider web metaphor in “Thread Technique”:
There’s Mr. No Name,
mute and motionless,
hunkered at the rim of his dinner plate,
patient as a black-eyed pea,
a single foot gentle on the signal line.
In “Sailing Back to Oklahoma,” Lane places us in the dust bowl years with his gritty imagery:
The wind sucked alfalfa seeds out of the ground
and the plow horse munched the top of his stall door
into a half moon, as we crunched on the grit-swirled
oatmeal in our bowls…
Our sun-struck pebble of a town was conceived
on promises of a railroad, and the rain
that was sure to follow our plow blades
and boots into the soil…
That house sat like an ark run aground
in a pounding surf of dune dust, sailing nowhere…
a flagging ark I wanted then as I want now
to burn to the waterline.
And finally there is the whimsy, the metaphor, the personification, and the provocative “truth line” in Lane’s “Things My Angels Do on Their Days Off”:
Sometimes they skip stones across the tops
of thunderheads and resurrect dead snails.
At the end of the day they break into pairs,
spend an hour practicing the finer points
of how to help those about to cross over—
while sitting on a chair next to a bed,
in thin watchtowers.
They Can Keep the Cinderblock is a book of free verse poems drawn from real life experiences, memories, and nature. Each poem, I believe, has provocative lines that may send the reader scurrying through the cobwebs of her own memories to wonder and to reminisce. Profound truths are skillfully interwoven into the telling of ordinary events in each of Lane’s poems, leaving the reader with a sense of wondering, a long pause, before moving on to the next one.
Elmae Passineau has published three chapbooks, On Edge, Beloved Somebodies, and Things That Go Bump in the Night. She is currently a thinker, reader, friend, helper, feminist, and writer.