Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket, Shiva

By Leonard Gontarek

Hanging Loose Press. 72 pp. $18

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

nolead ends 'It's easy to be clever," songwriter Jule Styne once said. "But the really clever thing is to be simple." The poems in Leonard Gontarek's latest collection demonstrate the wisdom of this. Take "Philadelphia":

Night coming down,

the way a waitress calls you Hon.

Memory and imagination form a partnership in these poems, the first providing the material the second gives shape to. "Estate" begins: "Faraway. The tools in the workshop in the adjoining yard/of childhood: here mysteries are created and mended."

There are two yards, actually: "this yard, this lovely yard, with fish heads for fertilizer," remembered from childhood, and the imaginary yard that childhood has become. "It's close to autumn," season of reminiscence.

The cadenced verse and demotic tone remind one of Beat poetry, endearingly so. Nice to know someone is still finding the beatific in the quotidian. And the verse isn't the only such reminder. There's also the wryness — "The heart's a mouser, let's not kid ourselves." ("Hotel Insomnia") — which protects the wistful from the sentimental, as in "Innocence": "The ice cream truck jingle drives my sister crazy./ I wonder if they have vanilla."

That wryness, by the way, is present from the start, in the book's very title, an allusion to a Sonny Boy Williamson II song that serves as an epigraph: "Take your hand out of my pocket, I ain't got nothin' belong to you." Shiva is the Hindu god said to be the destroyer of the world (and also of the the ego).

The urban scene — specifically, its Philly version — outdoor cafés, bits of Zen, thoughts of haiku, poetry readings, the joy and mystery of making love — these and a lot more like them get to take a bow in these deceptively casual lines. In aggregate, those lines prompt one to start noticing the things around and about. Why, there may be poetry lurking almost anywhere — "Just as I was surprised by autumn moments before,/though it had been autumn for days."

But Gontarek's poems are grounded in more than mere attention. The attention is focused, on the lookout for more than mere appearance. He has a knack of looking beyond and beneath that until the heart connects to experience in unpredictable ways.

Consider the wrenching stoicism of "Ways of Mourning," a family tragedy in three lines:

My father takes me out of school early.
I'm 9. Mother is dead.
He lets me drive.

Gontarek is especially adept when it comes to what is best described as engaged poetry (the term political is too coarse). The opening lines of "Locust Trees" is an almost pastoral rendering of want:

In my poor country, we poured sugar
on everything to not notice our hunger.
In spring, the shining coats of blackbirds
were turned gold by sunlight.

The juxtaposition of fundamental deprivation with a reflexive appreciation of natural beauty throws the former into painful relief. This pastoral setup continues in the next two lines: "The locust trees were thick with petals/but many had fallen to the ground." But more than petals have fallen:

Our neighbors lay scattered on battlefields,
some literally rose into heaven.

No give-peace-a-chance preaching here. This is a brief, subtle recapitulation of the horrors of war that poets have been telling of since Homer and before. As with all of the poems in this book, the idiom may be simple, but what is being conveyed is anything but.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.