Big Rig, a review of Guest of Myself, by John Grey. Cyberwit.net. 2021.
At a reading a poet said anything can be a poem, to which one of the audience quietly added, if it’s good. John Grey’s A Guest of Myself suggests any topic is fair game. There is the jack-of-all trades, the attic forager, the meeting attender, the drifter and the feeder of a friend’s cats. All kinds of people, and the poet is a few of them. Anything can be a poem if it’s good, and these are. They are poems to remember and return to. And, revealed after a second reading, each poem is solid, each hits the mark. They are funny, sad, mostly memorable for what they say and how they say it. John Grey doesn’t take himself too seriously or hesitate to complain or to acknowledge absurdity.
To be sure, the speaker in Grey’s poems doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet these are serious poems, serious and often funny. A few are written in third person, and most are in first person. Grey indulges without being at all self-indulgent. His preoccupation is not with himself but rather with language. At the end of the book’s first poem “Guest of Myself” “A woman asks me, / ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’/ I often wonder/ who else is there to enjoy.” To read all that precedes it, this is just the right ending, and it’s funny, with a residue of sadness. It’s mostly funny, a little sad because readers can put themselves in his place. Like his readers,
the speaker (the poet) is “only human,” with all that implies. That humanity is a constant throughout these poems. He takes himself seriously, but keeps it all in perspective; “all” is whatever situation the speaker is in, and he—either in first or third person—is always engaged in some situation. “These Things Happen” concludes with an ominous tone. Yet he keeps his cool, not easy after driving through floodwaters.
These things happen.
I could have drowned.
Instead I sat there in my car
until rescue came.
I felt foolish and ashamed.
But I was pleased that these things happen.
Because there’s other things, much worse,
that only happen once.
He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t hesitate to complain if there’s occasion to complain. The complaint often expressed in sarcasm, not always but often inward directed. He’s feeding a friend’s cat, cautious that, in his act of altruism, he’s not bitten or scratched. Yet he can’t complain loudly, for the poem is titled “Available For Cat-Feeding. Here’s a complaint from “Crows.” “Their caws don’t meld/ but face off against each other,/ like pugilists of noise.” Of the drifter in the poem by the same title, he says “He sure turned restlessness/ into a higher calling.” A bit cynical, yes. And also quite good, for the poem would be lesser without these two lines. In “Sick of Love” he says, “And she’s like a musician’s manager, the kind that can't get him/ any gigs. That utterance too, an integral part of one of the few poems that is written in long lines. Some lines are short, others middle-length, and a few fairly long. All the poems have their distinct situations. If a prospective readers asks, What’s this poem about, it would not be hard for a reader to come up with the answer. “Why I Won’t Be With You At Christmas,” that title makes clear what the poem is about. In the middle:
Your mother criticizes my supposed lack of ambition.
Your father looks down on me
like I’m something to be squashed, not embraced.
I’m sure your brother hates me.
And, though your younger sister sympathizes,
she keeps going on at me
about my lack of any tattoos.
This is a funny poem. You’ll never read another quite like it. It begins with a wonderful deflection:
On one side there is my love
and on the other, your living arrangements.
How is it that John Grey is absurd? He’s ironic with a twist; there’s a quiet outrageousness in how he says what he says.. At the end of the Christmas poem he says, “Remember, not all holidays are a time/ to step away from the rigors, the ordeals/ the vicissitudes of life./ Some are a continuation.” Who doesn’t recall at least one holiday like that? And what about the helpful neighbor that harms. He’s a jack of all trades, in the poem with the same title. He can “replace a loose brick,/ extract a dead bird/ from the chimney..” He does all sorts of useful tasks, and in the end “he takes from our self-esteem.” Anyone who’s ever met this jack of all trades, or one like him, might find that last comment strangely true. Grey sees the absurdity in life. Neighbors should be applauding this handyman, and they do, yet there’s this undercurrent of…resentment. Just a tinge. Sometimes he means the opposite of what he says. “Those Illegals" begins:,
The housekeeper is an illegal alien.
You’re sure of it.
When she kneels on the floor
Scouring grit from the kitchen tiles..
John Grey himself, we suspect, knows the drudgery of this labor. He knows it or else would not be writing about it in such an exacting way.
you’re watching a criminal in action,
worse than a bank-robber or a swindler,
maybe even than a murderer.
And he goes on to say:
From sink to table, she doesn’t leave
A speck of dirt anywhere
This hard working person has uprooted from her native country for a foreign one, a new one, for a good life, for what we all want. John Grey himself came from Australia to the U.SA. some years ago. From him we get the perspective of an immigrant. And from John Grey we get poem after poem after memorable poem—poems we return to…for pleasure.
There is seriousness indeed, if we consider being alive serious business. Being alive with our loves and joys and aches and pains, and sometimes, absurdities. Grey’s poems are always about something. One poem is about time spent in the café of a truck stop in the state of Arkansas. Let it suffice to say that in the fleet of trucks that is American poetry, John Grey’s Guest of Myself is the big rig.