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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Eugene Gloria's new book, Hoodlum Birds , demonstrates a central quality of poetry: depth of language, the power to get past the first surfaces of words and of things. Or to put it differently, the power to hear harmonies beyond the obvious ones, finding new undertones of meaning.

Instead of the customary, sensible and predictable word, poetry discovers one that vibrates with meaning. When Shakespeare says "Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow" (in Sonnet 30), the lethal and exaggerated meaning of "drown" communicates an ambivalent, self-critical feeling: His weepy mood may be self-indulgent or less than clear-sighted.

Gloria's book brings the historical and the contemporary into fresh, vivid relation, so that the street and the museum are no longer sealed off neatly from one another. He finds the buried historical passions underlying a world of Cadillacs and fistfights. And conversely, he finds a contemporary urgency in violent saints' lives. Gloria's material is not limited to a tough American neighborhood or a 12th-century Andalucian Jewish poet, but traces the currents of feelings and ideas that run between the two.

I don't mean simply his eclectic range of reference -- though it is pleasing to read poems that can speak with conviction about the poet Lorca and the painter Zurburán and with similar passion about the boxer Flash Elorde or the neighborhoods of Manila and Anaheim. Beyond that, and beyond the mere metaphor-making ability to see things in terms of other things, the poems attain a robust sense of reality. The title brings the language of the first term, "hoodlum," together with the observed reality of the second term, "birds." That simple procedure is richly imagined:

Hoodlum Birds

The fearless blackbirds see me again

at the footpath beside the tall grasses

sprouting like unruly morning hair.

They caw and caw like vulgar boys

on street corners making love to girls

with their "hey mama

this" and their "hey mama that."

But this gang of birds is much too slick.

They are my homeys of the air

with their mousse-backed hair and Crayola

black coats like small fry hoods who smoke

and joke about each other's mothers,

virginal sisters, and the sweet arc of revenge.

These birds spurn my uneaten celery sticks,

feckless gestures, ineffective hosannas.

They tag one another, shrill and terrible,

caroling each to each my weekly wages.

But they let me pass, then flit away.

They won't mess with me this time--

they know where I live.

I like the way "each to each" sounds both like Renaissance lyric poetry and the screech of the birds. I like the literary flamboyance of "feckless gestures, ineffective hosannas" played against the vernacular flamboyance of "small fry hoods who smoke/and joke." And I like the way the merging of birds with gang boys finds its resolution in the last line, with "where I live" implying that the poet is not completely unlike the bird-toughs. "Where I live" is part of the street-threat but also a phrase that means "what is important to me." That implication of fellow-feeling with his subject is part of Gloria's imaginative generosity.

(Eugene Gloria's poem is from his book "Hoodlum Birds." Penguin. Copyright © 2006 by Eugene Gloria.)

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