Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A City on 26 Streets: Patrick Porter's Nervous Halo.

Picking up Nervous Halo, a collection of poems published by Academic and Arts Press in
2001, I didn't know what to expect. The title, coupled with the mysterious cover
illustration ("believed to be" by Gilles Brenta) led me to think perhaps the poems were a
religious exploration, in the spirit of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.

If there is a little bit of God in everyone and the Devil truly is in the details, then the
cover art and title (which appears as a recurring line in one of the poems) are perfect.

In 25 poems, titled as 26 "Streets" (more on that later), the poet takes the reader on a tour
of a city as seem thru his and other eyes. One peopled with what at first might seem the
pitiful and downtrodden of society, as might be the case when portrayed thru the pen of a
less gifted writer. Porter, however, rises above writing about the lower-class city-dweller
for no other reason than to say, "Here they are. Don't they make a provocative subject for
Real Art?" He is an Insider—not only living and working among his subjects, but
celebrating them; not for their circumstances, but because they are managing to exist in a
hard world, as he does. "8th Street," for example, presents a woman, child in arm,
entering a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. Porter is writing not as an observer but as a
fellow consumer, who says without pretense, "it don't matter/woman/let it fall/let it
drop/let it go" (p. 13). With such nonjudgmental artistry, the poems invite the reader to
get to know these people, and him as well, as individuals, without any imposed direction
from the author. This alone makes Nervous Halo worth reading.

Porter spends a great deal of words on the details of his world—the angle of a streetlight,
the shape of a bottle, the sound of a hinge— and all to great effect. For the reader
unfamiliar with urban living (it cannot all be the sprawling studio apartments and café
lattes portrayed on "Friends") Porter paints a picture of city images that, while not
glamorous and inviting, are not repulsive either. Like an adept set designer, he dresses the
space with the minutiae and detail of his world, and then knows enough to go away and
let the characters move freely within the space. It is clear that he has listened to them and
understands them enough to convey their essence in an unencumbered, moving way,
making all of the poems provocatively autobiographical, without the romance or self-
indulgence that often comes with the use of Self as Subject. Compare, for instance the
poems of Allen Ginsberg to those of Jim Morrison—although they are equally
compelling, there is a near-martyrdom to the latter’s that weakens rather than strengthens
the work. Porter escapes such traps with seeming ease.

Coupled with the detail of his poetry is Porter's varied use of form, which mirrors the
diversity of the city. At times the pages are filled with images and skillful repetition and
at others single words cascade down the page in urgent thought. Some of the poems take
up several pages, while others are only a handful of lines. "26th Street," the last poem, is
a deceptively simple 15-word poem that holds a little mystery for the astute reader (Just a
hint: read the Contents page with care).

No review worthy of the name is complete without a bit of constructive criticism. In this
case, however, it is not for the poet but for the publisher. There are instances where page
breaks were dictated by page length rather than a poem's structure. This made for some
jarring interruptions. Should Nervous Halo see additional printings, this small criticism
can be easily fixed. It is a credit to the poet that his poems were engaging enough over
the first dozen lines to actually be a bit jarring when the victims of an ill-considered

Nervous Halo, and its promising and talented author, is a breath of fresh air from the
"poetry slams" referred to in the publisher's note and the cynical tendencies of some
modern poets. I recommend Nervous Halo to anyone who believes that great poetry is not
only timeless and multilayered, but also allows the reader to have opinions independent
of those of the author.

Joey Madia

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