Have at You Now!

By John Gery

WordTech Communications. 96 pp. $18

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Review by Elizabeth Knauss


In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark's motives become clear through the art of the soliloquy.

John Gery's new poetry collection, Have at You Now! reads like a series of expertly crafted declarations, expressions, questions, testimonies, and love letters in which the poet's intentions and inspirations are revealed on each page.

The book is divided by phrases from Hamlet: "Quintessence of Dust," "Bestial Oblivion," "A Congregation of Vapors" - suggesting that human emotions are timeless. Even the title - Have at You Now! - is from Hamlet, from the climactic sword fight in which the Danish prince is mortally wounded by Laertes. If Gery's title kindles the idea that he is also engaged in a scrimmage of some sort, well, the pen is mightier . . . .

Have at You Now! is the sixth poetry book from Gery, a native of Lititz, Pa., who now lives in New Orleans.  Gery is also the author of two chapbooks, as well as books on literature, poetry, and poets, particularly Ezra Pound.

Currently, Gery directs the Ezra Pound Center for Literature through the University of New Orleans. The center holds a biannual conference at a beautiful alpine castle in Brunnenburg, Italy. Pound once lived there, and it's now home to his descendants. Gery also has convened Pound conferences in Venice, Rome, and London.

I imagine it would be difficult, with such groundings, to keep Pound out of one's own poetry. And Gery's immediacy with images recalls Pound's, while remaining of our time. Gery's wide range of reference and mixture of registers - you get philosophy and modern warfare coalesced with contemporary slang - is also Poundian yet also his own. Gery's evocations of today's war-torn landscapes, whether Palestine or Belgrade, vibrate with this moment, and this moment's helplessness before such horrors:

To sit up all night and resolve the strife

of Palestine - that would be something! - grope

like Kierkegaard, even, maybe to find

not truth exactly, but something more, more . . .

what? More pungent? Like blueberries? Instead,

I stare through darkness toward the window ledge . . .

The 45 poems cover a wide gamut of topics. We have the aforementioned war poems, and poems wagging a finger at U.S. foreign policy. These pieces are rhetorically bellicose, passionately argumentative, formidable and loud.

But there is more to the poet than that. There is Gery's sensuality, which is particularly enjoyable. When he dips into seductive vocabulary crafted for a former love, an impulsive fling, one finds it to be like the cooling-down sensation after a rousing quarrel. Have at You Now! is paced evenly with such highs and lows, making the book a spiraling ride to read in one sitting. Gery's language is brisk and exciting, especially in his more carnal pieces.

His imagery is like a reboot for the brain:

I feel pretty             good about myself

      some days, wearing

creased clothes low          

   and tucked under                

      my belt, although

the heat won't                

   cease and my mood,             

      I swear, veers

like a thread off a spool . . .

In such bends and curves, we get the feel of the spoken word.

Have at You Now! is a poetry book for people in the habit of reading poetry. With Gery's hat-tips to writers and finger-snaps to poets (Fitzgerald, Larkin, Schwartz), plus references to romantic paintings and painters (Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and Waterhouse's Hylas and Nymphs),  this collection is at once for those who grew up on Yeats and Pound and a fresh introduction to newcomers, as long as they like a side of history with their poetry.

Elizabeth Knauss is a writer living in Philadelphia.