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Saturday, October 31, 2009


While judging the Nazim Hikment Festival poetry contest last spring, I kept coming back to a set of poem that moved me with their perspective and their language. They turned out to be by Peter Blair, a widely published poet who is now teaching at UNC-Charlotte. Peter did not make the final list of winners, but his poems stayed with me. They deserve a wide readership.

(See review at end of post)

Peter Blair’s first full-length book Last Heat, won the 1999 Washington Prize and was published by Word Works Press. Born in Pittsburgh, he has worked in a psychiatric ward and a steel mill, and served three years in the Peace Corps in Thailand.
Peter Blair has a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Iowa. He has worked in a steel mill, a psychiatric ward, and served three years in the Peace Corps in Thailand. He has published three chapbooks, INSIDE THE TRACKHOE, A ROUND, FAIR DISTANCE FROM THE FURNACE, and FURNACE GREENS all of which won national contests. His first full-length collection, LAST HEAT, won the 1999 Washington Prize and is forthcoming in February from Word Works Press. About his work, Alicia Ostriker has written:

"Peter Blair's poetry takes me right inside a place I've never been, the working life of a steel mill. God is in the details, and they are good and strong here."

His poems have appeared in CRAZYHORSE, RIVER CITY, POETRY EAST, and WEST BRANCH. He has received two Pennsylvania Council On the Arts Grants for poetry.

Peter lives in Charlotte, NC, with his wife and son.

Walking the Crosses with Jim Villano,

St. Vincent College Reunion

The newly cut grass over the graves

of the Benedictine monks says what

it always says: I’m green. I grow. I die.

The metal crosses marking each plot

line up over the hill, contoured

to the dips and knolls of the land.

They proclaim their names and dates,

like an inevitable iron grass that says what iron

always says: I was hot. I cooled. I rust.

Jim and I walk to the end of the line,

the most recent crosses, Father Ronald,

Father Alexander. We talk about all-nighters

studying for Father Alex’s economics finals,

Macro and Micro. Ronald, the Academic

Dean, knew all the favorite student haunts

off campus, told my father what he wanted

to hear: that I should be a Bio. major to get in

to Med. School. Heads down, eyes on the graves

where the crosses enter the earth, we can’t

say what we’re thinking. So we let the wind

whisper and lisp, what the wind always

says, I rush. I sigh. I’m nothing.


Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam

At the corner of Somprasong and Petchaburi

we sit at a rickety metal table. Our soup steams

in sidewalk sunlight. Cars crawl on the street

like the streams of ants up and down the shop wall.

His shiny head fuzzed with new hair,

eyebrows shaved clean, Kwaam smiles, ethereal,

kind: Thai and American cultures, two dreams

of one world, the Dharma. A few months ago

he taught me Thai and how to read palms:

A good way to hold hands with a girl. He winked.

Now, he's one day out of a monastery and saffron

robes. Noodles slip off my novice chopsticks.

My soup darkened by soy sauce, peanuts,

sugar, the strands disappear in my bowl.

Kwaam's noodles twine in clear broth.

At the plywood counter, I buy another soup.

The cook dunks a strainer of beef chunks

in boiling water. The red meat turns gray

and rubbery in bubbling froth. He dumps them

into a bowl with cilantro, sprouts, broth

and a fleshy lump of noodles. So, what is Dharma?

I set the dish on the table. Dharma is the empty

bowl. Joking, again. The sky's blue, like a bowl

overturned on market stalls and bleached

white buildings. The abbot took us to an autopsy.

They cut open a woman, removed the heart,

liver, intestines. He tells me about shriveled skin,

hollow rib cages arching over tables,

pails of limp, gray organs. Dharma.

My soup steams. My abdomen's distended.

The market gurgles ageless sounds around us.

I can't look at Kwaam's sad, triumphant smile,

or the emptiness deepening in his sunlit bowl.

Previously published in Visions International

The following were orginally published in Poetry magazine.

Bangkok, First day

100 off the plane.
Humid jet-fuel fumes
mingle with the jasmine lei
the Education Ministry staffer
eases around my neck.
In the distance
a mountain rises:
sapphire smog.


We drink quart beers at noon
in the outdoor market. Bright
blue tabletops. Tarps block
the white hot sun among whiffs
of charcoal and sweet coconut curry.
In the cool shadows of an overpass,
Pepsi crates totter on ice chunks
hidden under rags and sawdust.
Flames leap from a nearby wok.
The cook smiles: "Pak Fay, green
vegetables of fire. Eat them and cry."


On a blanket by the sidewalk,
people passing, a man's calloused toes
grip bamboo strands, thread them
through a round frame. His arm stumps
twitch above his lifting
calves and flexing knees. Beside him,
a stack of baskets grows on the cement.


At the temple, pineapple wedges
stacked crosswise gleam
on the vendor's cart, sliced
sunshine, brilliant
as the gold leaf peeling
from Buddha's face.


The exhaust-filled surges
of taxis, busses, trucks
thunder by the child
islanded in the intersection.
The twilight sun thickens
the air around him. He sells
jasmine flowers, holds them
dangling high over his head
as if saving them from a flood.


In a restaurant we order "soup."
Knotty viscera, tough gray rings,
and burgundy blood cubes
gleam in steamy broth.
"Come on," Ed laughs.
"Eat your entrails."


In the Mississippi
Queen on Patpong Road, her hands
rub my back, silky snakes
up and down my spine.
Swaying on platforms, girls
dance in bikinis, hypnotic
in swirls of incense and bar smoke.
I watch her oval sienna face
in the mirror's steamboat glitter,
eclipsed by naked legs. She whispers,
in my ear, "I do anything
for you. Try me."


"No one sleeps till dawn,"
we all say, walking, 4 am.
In a market gearing up
for morning, bloody eyes.
A just-slaughtered
buffalo's skull watches us
from behind the red mound
of its butchered flesh.


A sucking "woof," like a snuffed
candle flame against
my ear, the stone
clatters into metal
shop gates. "Farang! Foreigner!"
floats in from wherever
my fear is. We turn,
and six trishaw drivers lounge,
feet up on handlebars,
across the street.

Bangkok Roundabout

Movie billboards blot out a six-story building.
"This Week": a bare-chested man kung-fu kicks
on a flaming yellow background, leaps over
tiny scampering armies while cities burn.
"Coming Soon": a prisoner, handcuffed in blue rags,
towers sadly over the sidewalk. In painted insets,
a judge ponders scales, a woman fingers a gun.

Below, where the scaffold-poles rise from grass,
families live. A mother shifts a steaming pot
on a charcoal brazier. Her boy chases chickens.
Their laundry hangs under the burning cities
and the huge feet of the prisoner.

(originally appeared in PIGEON CREEK)

Friday For the River

After work, you bring a yellow envelope
stuffed with tips from The Wheel Cafe.
My check from St. Francis Hospital
bears the saint's image, arms raised in prayer.
This week we had two on suicide watch,
and a schizophrenic wrote his name in shit
on the quiet room wall. We stroll into the cold,
windless evening. It's Friday, an illusion
of completeness upon us. Walking twilit streets
to the river, we pass people jostling home
or cramming into happy hours. Lights switch on
along the wharf, and the sky's muted blue
corona fades behind Coal Hill.

The river gives back everything
the sky sends down. The bridge arcs into
its reflection, a perfect ellipse of girders.
The hill carries its dark complement, houses
clinging to its underbelly. Along West End,
the lamps set down spikes of light
that shiver in the gloom of the river bend,
the water surface invisible. You lean
against me, your eyes luminous
as the blue water. We look over the levee,
down into a stillness that contains us,
a stillness where a red full moon rises
into the depths of the Allegheny.

© All Copyright, 2000, Peter Blair.
All Rights Reserved. Printed By Permission.

by Peter Blair
Autumn House Press (2003) 64 pages
ISBN 0969941977, Poetry

One of the qualities I admire most in a poet is good judgment, and Peter Blair has it in ample supply. In The Divine Salt, Blair tackles a tough subject gracefully with poems about his experiences as an aide in the psychiatric ward of St. Francis Hospital in Pennsylvania.

His good judgment shows up first in the all-important choice of the opening poem, “Driving to Work,” which perfectly sets the tone of the collection. St. Francis Hospital/ looms above Bloomfield,/ two wings of burnt brick, its medieval/ spire a dark candle flame./ I’ve seared my mind in its heat:/ belted men to a steel bed/ . . . walked them/out of electroshock. . . With this passage, Blair establishes himself as both a participant and a witness to the inescapable emotional brutality of life—if you can call it that—in a psychiatric ward populated with characters who suffer from acute mental illness, are often tormented and sometimes violent.

As a witness, the author is always present in the poems, though he wisely keeps the focus on the subject—usually a patient—rather than himself. In doing so, he tells a ripping good narrative in language that is plain but compelling, while managing to keep enough emotional distance from his subjects to avoid melodrama. In “Donna Lee Polito,” the speaker is a psychiatric aide (the author, based on his bio), who escorts a female patient from one floor of the hospital to another. We learn that the patient has been improving, or so it appears: this is her first time off the locked floor/ in months. . ./ She’s tried suicide five times in three years. . ./ She’s been fine for weeks: helpful, bright, written on her chart. Confident of her cooperation, the aide is stunned when Donna Lee makes a break for it. He chases her down the street, but she gets away. From the eighth floor window, nurses watched/ her run, a tiny wavering figure, escaping/ all of us. . . She jumped this time,/ vaulting over the red railing from the high cement/ of the Bloomfield Bridge down/ to railroad tracks and scrubby trees.

The action and drama of the events depicted in Donna Lee’s rush to suicide are quite enough for the reader to handle without having the author report on his feelings. Assuming this is either a true story or based on real events, the author/narrator must have been devastated. Again, Blair has the good judgment to report the events objectively. It is only later, in “Lunch Break Between Wings,” that he chooses to let us see his remorse, and even here, he writes with commendable restraint: A cyclone of leaves and dust whirls/ . . . like the blinding/ restless grief// she must have felt on the bridge, high/ above the ragged treetops, Donna Lee,/ lost in the air// above the tracks. The rustling wind dusts my eyes. The passage ends with his too-late lament, Donna Lee, don’t leave.

In “St. Francis Night Shift,” Blair speaks directly to the irony of trying to help people who don’t want to be helped. I’m an aide, but who do I aid,/ holding a patient down,/ as the nurse peels off jeans and underwear/ to expose the white flank of buttock/ to the needle? In “Doctor Strong,” a code phrase for “patient is violent, we need help!” we learn that Blair is sometimes the one helped and at other times, the helper. Sometimes I am Dr. Strong: my hands pin elbows and forearms, or pry a patient’s hand from an aide’s neck.

I looked up the web site for St. Francis hospitals (there are many, all associated with the Catholic Order of St. Francis). One of their guiding principles is that they “never make inappropriate or negative remarks” about their patients. Though many of the characters in this collection behave quite badly—punching out the medical staff, screaming, soiling their sheets—Blair holds true to this Franciscan ideal throughout the book. Not once does he stoop to disparage those who are afflicted with mental illness.

The title poem bears an epigraph in which the author reminds us that St. Francis himself was sometimes “laughed at as a lunatic and driven away with many insults and stones.” In contrast, The Divine Salt regards the mentally ill with compassion and respect. St. Francis would have been pleased.

Richard Allen Taylor

1 comment:

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

Thank you for introducing us to the works of Peter Blair. I enjoyed his poetry very much. Thanks for the great job you're doing as Netwest's coordinator.