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Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009

Pants-droppingly good rants

THE GREAT FLOOD, by Frank Spignese. Printed Matter Press, 2009, 108 pp., $20 (paperback with CD)

Frank Spignese's short book of poetry, "The Great Flood," comes with an audio CD of Frank reading pieces from the collection. I delved into the book first and then listened to the CD. Maybe I should have done it the other way around. Frank's voice booms out in the live recordings, the audience adding comments and encouragement, laughter and applause. It's the right milieu for this poetry — performance not contemplation, the voice not the mind.

Written mostly in free verse, the majority of the pieces fuse rhyme and rhythm with spontaneous, breath-driven lines. The subject matter switches from terrorism to squishing frogs, from next-door neighbors to statistics on rape in Japan, and from jazz to baseball. Geographically, the poems are set in Tokyo and Boston with Bangkok thrown into the mix.

Influences are apparent but not overwhelming. The ghost of Allen Ginsberg haunts the pages — the idea of inspiration as breath, the repetitions, the inclusion of politics within a personal setting. Three poems entitled "Bobby's Kitchen" bring the "Things To Do" poems of Ted Berrigan to mind; and for "I Remember Edgar Henry" — a poignant yet funny tribute to a dead friend and fellow poet — Joe Brainard's "I Remember" is an obvious forebear. Along with these Beat and New York School poets, the other writer hovering drunkenly in Frank Spignese's pantheon is Charles Bukowski; the poems — and the live readings — have a similar beery bravado and in-your-face matter-of-factness.

There is a sprinkling of iconoclasm, a flurry of bad (and poor-taste) jokes, and a tendency to veer surreally into non sequiturs:

That painting in the Louvre is actually phony.

San Franciscans are eating less rice-a-Roni.

Some dude you never heard of just won a Tony.

However, there are also some striking images — I particularly liked the chicken bone and ancient xylophone simile — and good lines:

He pranced across the floor like two roller derby queens

Trapped in a Hefty bag.

So, part Lawrence Ferlinghetti, part Bill Hicks. Frank Spignese pulls no punches, his wit is acerbic, his targets wide and varied, and his work energetic and forceful. If there is a downside, it is that some of the lines are mawkish, sentimental and hurried. The above mentioned "Bobby's Kitchen" poems suffer from Kerouac's "first thought, best thought" syndrome in that what Spignese gains in spontaneity, he loses in sloppy lines and rhymes with the hint of nursery. Having said that, not many poets would mix the Oklahoma City bombings with a genital application of peanut butter or discuss the slave trade and The Beatles.

Spignese's "The Great Flood" is just that — a torrent of words, destroying sense and sensibility, political correctness, meter and rhyme in its path. A full-on tsunami of crackling words and cracking (and not so cracking) jokes.

From childhood reminiscences to musings on the life and thoughts of a gaikokujin English teacher, the poems read sometimes like live reports from life and sometimes like barely controlled ravings against the system. When listened to, the poetry has more heart, more heft, and one can hear in Spignese's voice the effort that has gone into the writing, something that does not quite come across on the page.

There is a lively expatriate poetry scene in Tokyo and Spignese is one of its better contributors. I suggest any would-be reader go grab a six-pack of whatever takes your fancy, strip down to your underwear, sprawl out on the futon and listen to the CD while reading the book — or, call a few friends and have a party. Frank Spignese might want an invite.

Frank Spignese will perform at the Pink Cow in Shibuya on Nov. 22 at 7 p.m. Phone (03) 3406 5597 or visit www.thepinkcow.com

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