"Cocktails With A Dead Man," poems by Joseph Albanese

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At the back of Cocktails with a Dead Man Joe Albanese lists a series of journals which have published his poems. I’m glad he’s found a number of fora for exhibiting his work; the works here collected take on an unremitting palette, tingeing most entries in the color of lament and loss. The 75 works share brevity and plain elucidation but stay for the most part in the realm of the abstract, rather than play to the reader’s imagination.

I wished for more concrete images in this group. They are few and far between in these poems, and so all the more striking when we find them. One example showing solid imagery, a piece called “Neon Crowds and Mirror Fights” describes the destructive potential of a neon “Open” sign diffused in an evening fog: “It could split the universe in two / as it has done to you many times …” The injury and irreparable hurt rule this poem as it does so many in this collection. 

Even when he uses a concrete image, as in the case of a kindergartener’s Crayola eight-pack, with its strict limit on opportunity, the poet puts it to use in his overall theme of loss and foreshortened choice: “ … or / if I only choose them because I knew I have to complete life’s assignment, / and that’s what I’ll be stuck with for the rest of my life.”

There are no poems here that could be called long, and sometimes the brevity serves well, as when Mr. Albanese plays with the language to achieve an effect. Here is “From You I Crumble” in its entirety: “here I sway, I know my weeds / form mutes each scene through broken fray / she’s cost of dream, I lied to myself / but you valley to protect my stream / from that I’d jump but crash straight through / these fragile knees / you’ve always been the gentle breeze and / handed shield - me, brittle leaf.” Besides the use of “valley” as a verb (meaning to shelter?), and the uncertainty I feel with the words “form” and “handed,” we note also the liberties taken with the rhyme scheme, unorthodox subtle echoes occurring mid-line. And again the theme of relationship across a gulf, perhaps impossible to span, gives you the flavor of the collection.

The emotions wash over us, and this poet opens his heart to us with all its difficulties and setbacks. I would hope, though, that he begin to focus these honest emotions into concrete form, that he find the worldly material to give them physical shape and heft, rather than remain so insistently in the conceptual. These poems need the clarity of everyday images; Mr. Albanese has talent - the heart and the urge are palpable.