A review of Selected Poems 2002-2021 by J R Solonche

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

Selected Poems 2002-2021
by J R Solonche
Serving House Books
Paperback, April 15, 2021, 438 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1947175518

2002 to 2021 is 19 years and 19 years of poetry is a lot of poetry, it took me a while to read Solonche’s Selected Poems but I did not mind because reading was embarking on a trip accompanying the poet through life, or opening as curtain and spying on a poet’s mind.  Why am I writing this? Because the selected poems delve into the poet’s thoughts, aspirations, reflections, philosophical questions, and much more. 

Solonche is an accomplished poet with a large number of poetry books to his name, a few of his books have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the Selected Poems, his latest collection, was nominated for The National Book Award.

The poetry in this book is varied in style, form, and theme. The reader will find prose poems, free verse, haikus, lists, ghazals, sonnets, and many anaphora poems. The poet’s poems on his relationship with life go from the most profound to the most trivial, many poems are philosophical others about nature, human feelings, and small events of daily life like driving on a highway, observing his daughter while she swims, or saying goodnight to her, as in the following excerpt from “Swimming Lessons”:

Your hair is plastered to your head.
Your pigtail drip,
two black icicles in the sun.
You wipe water from your face and eyes
with one hand.  With the other,

you grip the handhold.
You wait for your turn to float
on your back or stomach
or kick with the yellow board.
You are small there
up to your shoulders in the water,
but you are not afraid.

The I is very prevalent in Solonche’s poetry as it is repetition which is something that I avoid when I write poetry, but he embraces repetition, as in the poem titled “I Often Walk to the End of the Road”:

I often walk to the end of the road
to look at the abandoned farm.
I like to look at the field
as it goes back to wilderness again.
I like to look at the grass grow
higher and thicker around the barn,
embrace it with its hairy arms
as though welcoming back to the wood.
I like to look at the barn turn more
and more gray. It sags in the middle.

The poet seems to work things out through poetry, he reflects, he wonders, he questions, he tells the reader what he likes and dislikes he also brings up his relationship with banks, he says in this excerpt from “Banks” (44):

In the Chase Manhattan Bank branch
on the corner of 235th Street
and Johnson Avenue, I have changed
my mind about banks. I never used 
to like banks.  I despised banks. Now
I like bank.  I like standing in the cool
lobbies of banks.  I like the brass stanchions
and the velvet ropes that are swagged
between them that you must follow
to the tellers’ windows, as though through 
a maze.  I like the ballpoint pens chained
to the counters, where you fill out deposit
slips and withdrawal slips. I like the blue
deposit slips and the pink withdrawal slips.

Vivid descriptions bring to life what the poet sees, he also talks to things and writes odes to coffee, to his beard, to his feet, to his new corduroy jacket, to his thumbs. Some of his poems are very short like the following:

“In Poetry”
In poetry, there are 
no wrong words.
There are only
Sour notes.

What I had
in mind
is not what
I had in mind.

The good memory
sits heavily
on your mind
like a bad memory.

In many of Solonche’s poems, the psychologist in me feels a compulsion to analyse what subconscious motivation has inspired the poem, and quickly I have to bring myself back to my role as a reviewer. 

Amongst the different styles of poetry there are monologues, lists of the best name in poetry where the poem is just a list of names arranged in groups of threes. 

Solonche is sincere and knowledgeable of his own self to the point that he is self-deprecating like in this poem titled “Whenever I Get Home”:

Whenever I get home
after an exceptionally good day
in class, and I am smug
and full of my own voice,
and I am still giddy
from how well it went,
from how articulate I was,
from how my one-liners zipped
along the rows around
the heads like hummingbirds,
I sit down in the uncomfortable
metal chair behind the house
in the shade of the trees,
and I close my eyes and remember
what William Stafford wrote,
Like a little stone, feel
the shadow of the great earth,
and the stupid grin wipes itself
off my stupid face, and then
wipes off my stupid face.

Solonche finds inspiration in the most incredible sources: advertisements in several issues of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs, A compendium of Indispensable Facts, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, A field Guide to the Birds, and others.

The poet has no qualms to tell things as they are:

“After the Movie”:
“See?  It didn’t end badly,”
I said.  “She didn’t die.  She
Only got married off to that
Old man.”  You didn’t say
anything, but the look you
gave me was so deeply cutting, 
it severed my balls from the inside.

Or as in “Holy Shit”:

Galway Kinnell’s “Holy Shit”
is the kind of poem
that gives poetry a bad name.
or like in “Law & Order”
The only way
to stop
a bad poet
with a pen
is a good poet
with a gun.

A sense of humour is not absent from Solonche’s poetry, neither is a sense of loss in many of the poems, At times his voice is inventive and conversational, others are rhetorical, or sad. Many poems are profound, and others playful. The tones can be sardonic, spirited, or wry and in some vague mysticism flowers. Taken as a collection, Solonche’s Selected Poems 2002-2021 will encourage your thinking, will make you smile or laugh, and will awake a myriad of emotions. It is a book to savour slowly.

About the Reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, she writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish).  Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.