A newsman finds poetry on the city desk and beyond

Review Poetry

April 16, 2006|By ELIZABETH HOOVER | ELIZABETH HOOVER,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

Late for Work

David Tucker

Houghton Mifflin / 64 pages / $12

Veteran newsman David Tucker mixes the plainspoken (and sometimes hard-bitten) language of journalism with surprisingly lyric intensity in the understated poems of his debut collection, Late for Work. The poet Philip Levine, who chose this book as the winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, calls Tucker's poetry "so familiar and ordinary that if you're not reading closely you can miss how glorious the achievement is."

It is a motley assembly, with elegiac portraits, almost slapstick dramatic monologues, haunting narrative fragments and clever snapshots of everyday life. It is brimming with promise, and demonstrates that consistency isn't a prerequisite for a strong collection. Tucker, former city editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and current assistant managing editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., joins a line of poets who apprenticed in newsrooms, including Carl Sandburg, Stanley Kunitz, Wallace Stevens, and, of course, Walt Whitman. He proves yet again that reporting is good training for poetry and offers writing with the precision and vividness of a Metro section brief.

He has a keen eye and draws deft, efficient descriptions. At the snowbound airport, "nothing moved ... but the occasional noble / snowplow carrying on with a yellow grimace"; the gangsters wear "white T-shirts hanging like hospital gowns"; a man's "forced smile could have walked right off his face / and started a fight."

Tucker's work is accessible without losing delicacy. In a poignant poem about his father, "Always Here," he writes:

My father talks between emphysema gasps

about his high school days, the shot he made

to beat Hohenwald one night sixty years ago, the arc of it

high and too sharp but in it went with a kiss.

Tucker's conversational tone is entirely fresh and unaffected.

Some of Tucker's poems creep up on you unexpectedly, as a matter-of-fact retelling of events accumulated into a powerful emotional punch, as in the paired poems "The Brief Life of the Box" and "That Day." Both are about the family of a woman confined to an asylum. The first begins as a rather quotidian story about a man picking up a box from the trash, but resolves,

It was a summer for strange events like that.

The boy's mother was in the asylum, hearing voices.

Boxes became heroes; tomatoes made you pray.

It seemed she would never come back.

There are some falters in this book. At times, Tucker's humor can spill into preciousness in some of the funny-take-on-ordinary-situation poems (a genre itself, one perhaps best avoided). And the grab bag of lyric techniques can feel a bit jerky when a poem in the hard-edged voice of a city editor talking about a man being "whacked" by a power saw is verso to a gentle love poem.

Other poems are marked by an affable and balanced humor as Tucker regards the human landscape with a forgiving eye. In "Putting Everything Off," one of the half-dozen odes to laziness (and perhaps the most successful) in the book, he writes:

Let us hear as long as we can

the kitchen faucet that drips all day with its one

inscrutable syllable, and let us have joyous screen doors

with a rip in the corner like this, an amusement ride

the flies dive through, while the moon glowers down

and the stacks of things not done grow beautifully deep.

Although the newsroom has made its indelible imprint on Tucker, some of the best poems in the book are about shedding that skin, leaving that frenetic atmosphere and getting an opportunity to write about what doesn't make it onto newsprint: his mourning two young girls killed in a fire, the beauty of light refracted in broken glass, and how certain combinations of images can have a strange effect on us - creating a moment saturated with vitality. Tucker writes about this with a grace that reminds us of just how much poetry is capable of.

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