Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
What Kind of Man
by Tony Gloeggler
Paperback: 144 pages, ISBN: 978-1630450618
After his kidney transplant surgery, as he lies in his hospital bed, in the final poem of this astoundingly human collection, Tony Gloeggler wonders “what kind of man / I can still be?” This is the implicit question that’s being asked throughout these sweetly lyrical narrative poems. Though they cover a wide range of themes, from family to lovers, from his work with the mentally retarded residents of a group home in Brooklyn to his touching devotion to Jesse, the autistic son of a former lover, from his own dire health issues (“kidney / disease, open heart surgery, hernia / strangulation, dialysis and finally / the kidney transplant.” – “Autistic Basketball”) to, yes, poetry, the doubt lurking behind all of these stories is whether the poet measures up to his own standard of humanity. What kind of a man is he, indeed. It is no surprise, certainly, that so many of these poems are written in the second person, the poet addressing himself, talking to you, putting his motives and actions under the microscope, while all the others are first-person “I” poems. In the poem, “Windows,” an extended metaphor for seeing, comprehending, he writes:
I know anyone can die anytime,
especially me, but believed
my window had opened wider,
looked out further to watch myself
living a full life for a longer time….
What Kind of Man begins and ends in hospital rooms, and while health is an urgent concern, it’s that full life that grips him throughout. What does it mean? How does it manifest itself?
Over a dozen of the poems in What Kind of Man deal with his family, including “Beach Boy,” “Independence Day,” “Mother’s Day,” “Accounting,” “Legacy” and “Father’s Day,” from which we get a picture of a loving mother and a strict, even autocratic, father. In “Family,” Gloegger muses about whether he was adopted, humorously speculating that “They took you in, / looked at you as a gift or burden / from god,” because while it’s true that all family members might be a little odd:
But you, you’re the weird one,
too quiet, with your writing
and reading, alone, no new
girlfriend, that autistic kid
you still visit in Maine
and now this kidney condition….
These poems describe a close and often contentious family, and Gloegger’s reservations and resentments are plain. After his father dies, he writes in “Legacy,” “they only mention / happy or funny moments / while our nagging conflicts, / his limitations and blind spots / stick with me more.” But finally, at his father’s funeral, in “About Time,” we read:
Tears fall out of my eyes and my sister
says it’s about time I did some crying.
Other poems involve his lovers, and one that’s particularly heartbreaking is a passionate affair with a co-worker who lives with her boyfriend whom she ultimately marries and thus ends the relationship with Gloeggler. “God’s Gifts,” “Those Three Years,” “Endings,” “Last Love Poem” detail this tender but doomed love. Thirty years later, after all the harrowing health crises, professional and family issues:
I want to close my eyes, listen
to you fill in every missing, lost
moment and dream of leaning over,
finding your lips and kissing
the one woman I never stopped
loving, one last time before I die.
In a poem called “Thanksgiving,” he characterizes the everydayness of his life, so in contrast to his dreams:
sharp stabs of loneliness,
sitting at your desk trying
to write something true
But there’s plenty of joy and celebration in these poems, too, from his love of music, particularly the Beach Boys (“45 RPMs,” “A Little Music,” “12/8/80” – the day John Lennon was killed – “Kinds of Blue,” “Songs and Illuminations,” even “Wedding”), to his love of basketball and baseball, the fulfillment he receives from his work with mentally and emotionally handicapped people, and finally, especially, the great joy he takes from Jesse, the autistic child of a former lover, whom he visits regularly in Maine. “I feel / as if I’m fulfilling my one holy / purpose on earth helping to make / this guy happy,” he writes in “This Month’s Visit.”
These poems are all very New York-y, another source of the gritty joie de vivre at the heart of his outlook. Having been born in New York and lived his entire life in New York, this is natural, but it informs Gloeggler’s attitude, and there’s so much New York atmosphere, from scenes, neighborhoods, personalities, institutions, the public transportation. “Gentrification,” for instance, begins, “The first time you subwayed to the group home was back in ’79. You got off one F stop too late….” Similarly, the poem “Crying” begins:
It’s an early Monday morning
and I’m leaning against the door
of the E train, scanning the faces
of the other riders.
He notices a “well-dressed black man” with tears staining his cheeks. The vision haunts him all day. Indeed, Gloeggler displays a great empathy for black- and brown-skinned people, which is another part of that essential question what kind of man he is. In several poems, like “Shotgun,” “Queens NY 1979” “Au Revoir Les Enfants” he wonders if he’d have the courage to confront his friends for racist behavior, and in another family poem with the ironic title, “A Good Man,” he contemplates the horribly racist attitudes of a cousin whose cancer has come back, who once vowed, “he’d leave the country…if monkey-man Obama got elected.” When his mother:
notices my silence, she says
Tom would do anything for you.
I say, I know, I’ll call him over
the weekend, see if there’s
something I can help him with.
What kind of man is Tony Gloeggler? Read this collection and understand the mixture of loneliness and joy, love and disgust, despair and hope. He is Everyman.
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.