ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Knives on a Table", by Pete Mladinic (Mayo, FL: Better than Starbucks, 2021), reviewed by David Reich

Peter Mladinic’s poetry collection Knives on a Table marks the arrival of a number of fresh new voices, for Mladinic commands a wide tonal range.          

            To begin with there’s the death-haunted Everyman, who in “Death, Sleep, and the Traveler” implicitly compares his late uncle’s sunken living room to the grave where the elder relative lies. (“He had what I wanted / A sunken space to recline in.”)

            In other poems death slips in casually, in passing, as in “Trotlines”:

            On a bulletin board a man in a spacesuit
            floats in space. Ten years back, at a party
            he said his wife’s mother, age thirty-six,
            had died in her sleep. I’m not ready to die
            or to go into space. Go home—
            I’ll do just that when my students’ essays
            have been written.

            Even a poem about a young boy’s first trip to the barbershop contemplates the toddler’s eventual demise. Though likely far off, it still looms in the form of the barber’s razor, held above the boy’s head.

            A second kind of voice, also death-obessed, plays the obsession for comedy. In “To My Shrink,” which explores death’s disturbingly sexy side, the speaker tells the titular therapist that

            I lie awake at night thinking of Death.
            She’s my girlfriend, I said.
            I liked how that sounded
            Sometimes, she wears
            a death uniform that I watch her
            unbutton and step out of.

After sending her a pendant inscribed with a monogram letter D, the speaker ends the poem at a Walmart store, French kissing Death in the linens aisle.

            The humor of “To My Shrink” also informs several other poems in the collection, most notably “Big,” in which everyday objects abruptly assume enormous dimensions and rebel against their befuddled owner. The poem ends on a grim note, with huge paper clips expelling the speaker from his house, “all the while blocking / [his] path out the door.” Along the way, Mladinic pokes fun at the speaker’s politics, and presumably his own, as in lines that recall the S&L scandal of the late 1980s:

            The president’s son got off, scot-free,
            yet James Brown went to prison.
            A country where they jailed
            The Godfather of Soul wasn’t a country
            I wanted to live in.

            The voice of the anxious do-gooder is also heard in “My Shadow on a Rainy Day,” where the speaker admits that

            Papers blowing out of pick-ups on the highway annoy me,
            so do poachers killing elephants for ivory.
            I’ve never met a poacher, though I know some hunters.
            I don’t understand the thrill. I’m open,
            but don’t think I could shoot a deer.
            For survival, yes, but I doubt I’ll have to.

The confessions mount up: “I bore people” and

            Ok, at times I’m an SOB.
            I couldn’t get along with myself,
            When someone says Murphy was shot in a bar at 3 AM,
            I ask, “What was Murphy doing in a bar at 3 AM?”

Irony, of course, pervades contemporary letters; self-irony is rarer, also more endearing. Knives on a Table rewards readers’ attention.

Since the 1970s David Reich's prose has appeared in distinguished journals--North American Review, Transatlantic Review, Brilliant Corners, Gargoyle, The Smith, Beyond Baroque, and others. 

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