Monday, February 20, 2012

A Little in Love a Lot: A Review

A Little in Love a Lot. Paul Hostovsky.
Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, Aug. 2011. 96 pages, ISBN: 978-1-59948-303-0

(click the image to be taken to where you can order A Little in Love a Lot)

I first discovered Paul Hostovsky’s poetry when he was published in the now defunct online journal Jellyroll. I was immediately struck by the playful associative leaps his poems made. Since then I’ve come across his poems in many other journals both print and online, and have read his most recent collection, A Little in Love a Lot. The very title implies his poetic technique. A Little in Love a Lot is a dance with many partners, a desultory romp of affections. Sex and love are, of course, the subjects of many of these poems. But so also are the uncomfortable differences between men and women, young and old, even two individuals, and the way to bridge those gaps by an unrestrained embrace of all those differences.

The opening poem, “Uncanny,” says, “everything rhymes a little,” and as you somersault through the associative dances of Hostovsky’s poems you will dance into unexpected meanings and insights, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always engaging. In the poem, “The Debate at Duffy’s,” a man and woman argue over the root of the desire for sex. The woman says it’s a spiritual yearning and the man says it’s a compulsion of the body. The woman pours them another drink and the man

. . . drank deeply, felt the spirit
fill his cup. Then he looked into her eyes and saw
that she was beautiful, sexy and at the bottom
of the 9th, suddenly, surprisingly, irrevocably, right.

Of course the poem pivots on the wry double-entendre of “spirit.” The difference in opinion gives way to an agreement by a play on words. And we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that conclusion because it’s wordplay, since it’s also a way of thinking. We are following a train of thought not just a trail of words. Inherent in it is the playfulness that allows children to find joy and riches right where an adult sees nothing but “dead meat” and a “sad/parking lot ringed by a handful/of gimpy trees.” That is from the poem, “Poetry at the Burger King,” where the adult hating the scene because he’s “not poet enough/to call forth its riches” is redeemed the moment two children come in “very happy to be here” and

dancing to the song of the associate
which wasn’t a song until their dancing
made it so.

This ability to embrace that difference is the core of A Little in Love a Lot. In “Unlikely Love,” a man sees his girlfriend’s ex walking through a park. Watching the ex walk sadly and alone, the speaker of the poem says

. . . I felt
something for him, something in that moment
that I knew you wouldn’t understand if I tried
explaining it to you tonight when I saw you—
because I still don’t understand it myself—
it was something like pathos, but something more
like love, really—I felt a sudden rush of love
for this man whom you don’t love anymore.

Or in “Mozart in Your Armpit,” his aunt compares the phantom pain of her amputated legs to the speaker’s enjoyment of an opera even though he doesn’t know Italian.

You think you’ve taken care of a thing,
severed it from yourself for good—
then there it is again, what can’t be.
And feeling more like itself than ever.

Listen, you don’t need the words to know
when the music has changed; when the pain
has turned to pleasure; the pleasure
to pain.

It’s all vowels anyway—one
long dilating Italian vowel
sliding into another: orgasm,
agony, orgasm, agony again.

Sometimes the effort to embrace fails because it’s the effort and not necessarily the success that matters. It is where the poems express an unbridgeable distance between people that the pain of that divide is undercut by the playfulness and humor of Hostovsky’s voice, which make sense. If we are to fully embrace life, it may include embracing certain moments as being beyond us—moments when our efforts at inclusion fail. Those failure have to be included. For instance, in the poem “The Conversations of Men,” the speaker’s girlfriend wants to know the kind of conversations she would hear if she were a fly between two urinals. The speaker explains the last time a man talked to him while standing at a urinal, the man exclaimed “How about them Bruins?” The speaker could only say in response “Goddamn!” because

. . . he was trying to make contact
with his gender, and if I said I didn’t see the game,
or if I said I didn’t follow hockey or don’t
give a shit about the Bruins, he would probably
feel like he hadn’t made contact.

Of course, the man didn’t make contact. The speaker is sparing the man’s feelings, letting him have the illusion of connection. It is a kind of sympathy, a very good word for Hostovsky’s poems because “sympathy” means “to feel together.” A brief poem called “The Way Out” goes

The way out
isn’t under or
over or around
or even through.
It’s with. With is
the only way out.
In fact, out isn’t
the way out either
Out is a misnomer.

So here we all are. None of us are going anywhere because there is no “way out.” There is just being with each other in some way, and taking the whole vast space between you and me, East and West, orgasm and agony as a fact of life, and rather than narrowing the scope of our affections and loves to be for just this one thing, this one moment, this one person, this one activity, broaden it to as many moments as possible, as many people, as many worlds until you are A Little in Love a Lot.

Hostovsky is a refreshing voice in the landscape of American poetry because he knows how to dance and somersault with words and ideas, for him thinking is fun and the movement of a poem is a kind of acrobatic tumbling that ends in meaning. A Little in Love a Lot is a fun collection, an engaging collection, a collection that will both make you think and make you laugh out loud.

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