Tonight I lift my glass to Jerome Sala whose new book The Cheapskates is just out from Lunar Chandelier Press. It is a handsomely produced volume and it is bursting with the mordant wit and adventurous spirit that mark this talented poet with the quiet exterior and the secret burning rage.
I sometimes read a book of poetry flipping through the pages at random, as if reading were a form of fortune-telling. Using this method I began with Sala's Alfred E. Neuman sequence. The avatar of Mad magazine ("What, me worry?") comes at us in a "Cubist Portrait," a "Surrealist Portrait," and a "Minimalist Portrait" consisting entirely of a single made-up word: "worryry." There is also "Political Portrait" and, best of all perhaps, a "Zen Portrait" in four lines divided into two two-line stanzas:
The animating conceit of a Sala poem is characteristrically clever. His "Anniversary," a persona poem in the manner of a letter from a soldier to a spouse, and "Mother's Day," are flat in tone and oddly devastating in effect. After reading his "Hey Scorpio Mind," I felt a renewed determination to keep working on my own prose poems in the form of astrological profiles.
If Sala's humor and wit is what hits you first, there is no escaping the rage that informs such a poem as "National Security Crisis," which begins: "These days being a goon / no longer guarantees you a squad. / It's hard out there in the cudgel and tear gas business -- / even the job of your simple punch in the gut / has been overtaken by a new generation of rubber bullets!" We live in "the country of no country," he writes in another poem -- a country that resembles "an extravagant, steampunk renaissance fair." Not all here is affirmation; for all the laughter, the poems are a criticism of life, of the affluent society that needs to make "war on poverty," a phrase that can mean two opposite things.
The exclamatory utterances, the rapid changes of diction, the imaginative gambits, the fun -- all proclaim Sala to be an exemplary agent of the New York School in its current guise as a stealth activity practiced, as it happens, not only by New Yorkers like husband and wife Sala and Elaine Equi, but by those who may live in Florida, Mississippi, Alaska, California, and other places far from Bleecker Street or Chelsea.
I believe a reliable guide to a new volume of poems is a quick look at the titles of individual poems: are they interesting enough in their own right to quicken a new poem into existence? Can you see yourself appropriating the title and running with it? The Cheapsakes rewards this approach with "Now Playing at an Alphabet Near You," "Notes While Reading William Bronk," "Etymology of the 'Barn,'" "Policy Proposal," "Cross-Eyed Puzzle." I can imagine reading this book and writing a poem in response to half its contents. Jerome Sala lives in "the Republic of Wonder" and makes you feel that you are "lucky to be alive / in contemporary fantasia." -- DL