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Just Like Oz: Essays on a Few Poet Wizards & Their Multifaceted Magic
by George Drew.
Madville Publishing, 2022.
George Drew, a prolific poet of 9 poetry collections and 2 chapbooks, delights the reader with a new book, a collection of essays about his favorite poets whom he calls the wizards with magical talent. Drew dedicates his book to Paul Ruffin to show his gratitude to the late editor of Texas Review Press, who published 3 of his books.
Drew expects readers to find pleasure in his Oz book. I for one feel drawn to ask what multifaceted magic he has found in reading his favorite poet wizards. The first essay, “Lodging a Poem,” is a short response to Jared Smith’s poem, “Imagination and the Man.” Though short, Drew’s response is fluent and conversational. Drew raises a question a reader may ask, “Why, I’ve always wondered, does a specific poem in a collection of generally fabulous poems stick to one’s memory like a barnacle to timber, never to be dislodged?” He uses Smith’s poem to help him find an answer and concludes that the pull of the poem lies in its imagination and mystery, its magic.
Similarly, in the second essay, “Poems That Jack Took: The Dressing Down of An Editor,” Drew continues a similar discussion. He asks what poem, or why this one, not the other one, is to be taken by an editor. Contrary to the first essay, “Poems That Jack Took” provides a more detailed analysis of the two poems by Jared Smith again, a poet much admired by Drew. His close reading—stanza by stanza—is helpful to a potential contributor to a journal because he unearths some reasons why an editor like Jack Bedell would accept a given poem: “its lyric intimacy, its efficacy of structure, and its supple control of language…” In other words, Drew’s analysis also reveals Bedell’s aesthetic preferences in selecting Smith’s two poems. As an editor of Louisiana Literature, Bedell has shown what a fine editor looks for: a “resonant sense of wonder.
It’s a surprise that Drew’s third essay, “Crazy Horse: What Actually Is Being Said in Father/Son Poems,” discusses a poem, “Father,” by the same poet in his two previous essays—Jared Smith from Colorado. It gives a close account of a particular father-and-son relationship with its analysis of the dramatic monologue, progression of details, and cosmic and natural imagery. While the major focus is on Smith’s poem, Drew also uses Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Colorado poet laureate David Mason’s “Fathers and Sons” to show the complexity of the father/son relationship. Moreover, reading these poems, Drew fleshes out the memory of his own father, whom he didn’t know well because he barely lived with his father except when he was a high school senior and college freshman. Yet, his narration is touching and brings immediacy between him and the reader by revealing tenderness hidden under the difficult relationship—his father kept all his son’s writings as a token of pride and love. After his father’s funeral, Drew finds his books and journals in his father’s closet. As his finding helps him release both his grief and love, he says regretfully, “How wrong I was. When I pulled them from the shelf, I saw they were stacked neatly, arranged chronologically in the order of their reception, and wrapped with a pink ribbon, tied into a big bow.” At that moment, redemption returns, though a little too late, to fix the generational relationship, and the image of the father changes through this find. Maybe this is a magic part of this essay or the pleasure of reading Just Like Oz. Followed by his three analyses of Jared Smith’s poetry is a sequence of four short essays, one on Arkansas poet Johnny Wink’s use of language and humor and three brief responses to reading Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, and William Carlos Williams.
The next part comprises four essays that analyze the poems of Jack Butler, another poet wizard admired by Drew. “Sometimes That a Poem Is Masterful Is Enough” addresses one question pertinent to Butler’s poem “Sundays in the Cemetery of Lost Childhood”: Why is this poem masterful? Drew gives attention to the structure and other technical aspects of the poem such as the highly charged diction, metrical variations, and structure that “consists of movement enclosed by stasis, the temporal by the infinite.” The next essay, “Fixing the Shimmer: The Hard Art of Poetry” (a catchy title), leads the reader into the hard art of Jack Butler’s long poem “On the Island.” Drew points out that Butler’s poem shows his “absolutely sophisticated mastery of craft; his penchant for startlingly unexpected imagery and metaphor; and his sure sense of sound—the musicality of language, rhythm, assonance, dissonance, and so on.” What a reader can learn from Drew’s analysis of Butler’s poem is how to appreciate a poem that looks hard but represents various aspects of poetics. The third essay on Jack Butler—“What Makes a Poem a Master Work?”—echoes what Drew discusses in the first. Both address a question about why a poem is masterful. Again, Drew shows his ability in analyzing the poem stanza by stanza through a close reading of Butler’s poem “I Thought My Father Was Time.” Again, he presents his way of appreciating poetry as art. The fourth essay on Butler’s work is short. It’s a stanza-by-stanza analysis of a poem with the theme of time and timelessness.
Part 4 consists of three essays—homages to poets and editors respected by Drew. The first one is like a travelogue about a trip to Laugharne, a Welsh town associated with the name of its poet, Dylan Thomas. The second one, “Lingering Sweetness,” reviews Paul Ruffin’s book of essays with an assertion that humor is “one very large weapon in Ruffin’s literary armament.” One interesting scenario mentioned that echoes the title is that Ruffin liked to eat a colorful candy per day because its taste “reminded him ‘of trains and the worlds they came from and went to.’” Drew concludes that Ruffin’s tales are magic. The title essay, “Just Like Oz,” however, talks about the making of a book and how other authors’ books can function like Oz to get Drew hooked.
The final part is about friendship through Drew’s review of his two friends’ books. “Marble All the Way” reminisces Drew’s friendship with poet Allen Hoey, who died in 2010, with a long discussion of Hoey’s poetry book, A Fire in the Cold House of Being, and Drew’s long poem in 11 sections in memory of Hoey. The next essay, “Nude Man in the Water” reviews David
Dooley’s volume of poetry, The Long Conversation, enriched with a funny episode about four friends walking one day in a park near Ithaca, New York, and Hoey going swimming nude in the park pond. The concluding essay, “What Students Need to Know about Syntax,” comes from a question raised in his introduction to poetry class—“What is syntax?”—that has the class pondering the syntax of Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” written by Drew on the blackboard.
I have long admired Drew’s poetry. Just Like Oz shows me the multifaceted magic of him as an essayist. It’s a joy to read as it moves with its own uniqueness: a conversation, as if in a classroom, about close readings and analyses of poetry and about his friendship with fellow poets and editors. In a way, Drew is like the wizards in Just Like Oz.
John Zheng’s book reviews have appeared in African American Review, Arkansas Review, Louisiana Literature, and North of Oxford. His poetry book, The Dog Years of Reeducation, is forthcoming from Madville Publishing in February 2023.