In Mirror Image, a compact and spirited collection that includes poems, a dramatic monologue, a dramatic dialogue and a short story, Guernica has produced a portrait of veteran writer Len Gasparini that is by turns droll, lyrical, wistful and artlessly attentive to craft.
The numbered sequence called “Memories of the Rockin’ Fifties” takes us back with what feels like total recall. Poem after poem gives us suicide knobs, Elvis, short-shorts, James Dean, drive-ins, Jack Kerouac, sputnik and beatnik. Classic moments caught live, snapshots from the nifty fifties, spring out of this family album: a crazy “Chevy ragtop” ride, “wrapped around / the jailbait blonde” drifts gently into “the summer night standing still / at the end of a long quiet street overhung / with tall elms.” The countless teen queens of adolescent fever with names like Lucille and Marlene are everywhere:
I see her now: ponytail,
pink angora sweater, saddle shoes, bobbysocks,
carrying herself like a birthday present
waiting to be unwrapped.
Atmosphere builds as you read these pieces full of summer roads, and “Little Richard one decibel below brain damage.” Although the sequence is shot through with American references, no doubt reinforced by the fact that the Windsor-based speaker of the poems “was living in Detroit’s backyard,” the impression is less of one culture infiltrating another and more of a raging, shared, post-war, coming-of-age youth culture. What produced the rage was repression – personal, social, political – worn as nonchalantly by the Eisenhower era as a fox collar. “Memories” flares with it like a match in darkness – the H-bomb, McCarthyism, Civil Rights – dangerous sparks off the deadly industrial military complex.
Other poems exemplify Gasparini’s fidelity to individual perception, whether a surprise painting (“Orchard”) or the teasing tip of some untold family saga (“My Mother Loved to Dance the Tango”).
Gasparini’s short story, “Nocturne” manages to imbue the surface self-satisfaction that was the fifties with an uneasy Tennessee Williams subtext. You have an adolescent paperboy on summer deliveries, a bullying buddy, a household made interesting by its piano-playing mother and her attractive but crippled teenage daughter. Pacing, event and period detail work in perfect harmony to create an illusion of simplicity. You’re right back there in Pleasantville. Things keep threatening to happen but don’t. The paper carrier experiences a brief glimpse into a foreign world of classical music, graceful gestures and pensiveness. Years later, he realizes that what claimed him instead was “Rock and roll, girls, good times, souped-up cars with bubble skirts, poolrooms, and the Beat scene.” “Nocturne” is a delicate tracery that finally registers regret at something lost or missed: a particular personal possibility but also a much larger North American innocence.
Where monotone and obsessive one-dimensional lives seem to take over, Gasparini feels no need to embellish. The dramatic monologue, “A Woman Alone” – a bad luck female life story – is not only resolutely bleak but teases the reader with a sense of something much fuller that is concealed. “A Lovely and a Fearful Thing” – in which two free-spirited poets discuss women and sexuality as though alone in a locker room – tantalizes in the same way. These straight-talking but strikingly ironic texts give as much as we want to take and are as forthcoming as Gasparini feels they need to be.
Gasparini’s versatility is a reflection of the life he wants to portray, a life lived in many forms. There is something simultaneously tender and tough about all this writing, a sense that it knows more than it is saying.
Patricia Keeney is the author of nine books of poetry and a picaresque novel. Her works have been translated into many languages including Hindi and Chinese. As a prize-winning theatre and literary critic, she publishes in Canadian and international journals. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at York University in Toronto.
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