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ON EDGE: John Allman and William Trowbridge

“There were two Holbeins, flat, shadowless, edgy compositions.” The Oxford English Dictionary has “edgy” entering the language with this sentence in 1825, and the readers of the day would have understood it as a reference to the relatively hard edges by which the painter defined his forms.

Later the most common usage came to suggest a jumpy, nervous state.  However, the “edgy” I’m interested in—“edgy” as in dark, as in risky, as in on-the-edge—retains, in my mind, something of its early association with precision and definition, technique. 

The old English, ecg, meant “corner” or “edge” but also “sword”.  And then there’s that razor’s edge, which few of us—unless we were born with the lately discovered “danger gene”—are pleased to find ourselves on.  It strikes me that if edgy carries a hint of threat then the implied weapon is not a brass candle stick or crock pot. Edgy art, writings, effectively edgy, do not bludgeon.

To this day it’s fairly common for critics and commentators in the visual art world to define a particular artist’s work as edgy, but rare for their counterparts in the poetry monde to use the term.  And no wonder; few poets are.  Dark yes, but some that we might think of as edgy aren’t. Weren’t.  Bukowski?  Boldy honest, yes, but too casual to be edgy, slack in his technique. (The stunning “tragedy of the leaves” is one of several exceptions.)

Who were the edgiest poets of the last, oh, sixty years or so?  (One might well ask.)

Sylvia Plath and Weldon Kees.  And Plath couldn’t get most of those last spectacular poems into print.  Weldon Kees may not even have tried, not with his last batch.  Of course these two poets were extreme cases, and yet for the most part, the tastemakers and wine rankers at the pricier ends of the poetry monde don’t favor the edgy. 

A couple months back I came upon a review of a poet, a woman from the Northern climes, whose book includes several sharp-tongued poems, the best of them deserving of the adjective “edgy”.  I’ve seen worse reviews, but decidedly this one did not glow.  The more charged and feisty and briskly paced the poem, the more displeased the reviewer.  This work made the reviewer edgy, as in nervous and jumpy.

Readers, mavens, the following poems have edge. They have it in spades (a useful tool defined largely by its edges.)  In terms of technique the poets achieve the requisite chiseled effect, but beyond this they compel our attention through a kind of credibility—our sense that they draw from an uneasy knowledge born of experience.

The hip-hop world advanced the term “Street Cred”.  John Allman and William Trowbridge also possess related qualifications: Edge Cred.

- Suzanne Lummis

John Allman

He was seven, cutting a hole in his new belt, twisting
     the point of the French carving knife
like an awl: mother sound asleep from her night shift
pushing up and down the brass handle of an elevator
     at the Astor Hotel; sinuses

filling with descent. Father snoring on his back from Tenth
     Avenue beer and a natural tendency
to get everything up his nose. The first day of the second grade,
weeks before he’d slide the knot of Tommy’s tie up into his
     Adam’s apple, choking him on

the front stoop because Tommy’s mother stomped on their
     ceiling whenever they made a little
noise. Sister asleep in her crib, already behind the slats of a ward,
facing the wall.  The future looped around him like a whip. Last
     week, he’d seen Sergeant York shoot

holes in foreheads from across a misty trench, mother coming
     to get him in the exploding dark. Now he
torqued that knife’s honed hypotenuse gleaming like a swastika.
What did he know of evil? All he wanted was to keep his knickers
     high, argyle socks in place, his golfer’s

stance the envy of Mrs. Thompson in her fur coat that he stroked
     during the fire drill. Then his wrist spurted
red flame. Arterial blood. The entire reach of his lungs grabbing
at the severed belt, lips opening below his grasp. He ran into the
     bedroom, uplifted hand, splashed throat,
blond hair, all of him fleeing. Father leaped out of bed. Mother
     pumped an unseen
handle to get them out of there. Sister stared with liquid eyes
to melt the heart of death. You can see the scar threading
     the radial knob to the flex of my palm

When I make dog shadows on the wall. It wrinkles like the skin
     on sauce left to cool
uncovered in the air. Dry as the scrape of a window opening.
Rough as the sewed lips of zombies tottering through Steinway
     Street’s movies. Something half-born.

William Trowbridge

In an allegory, he’d have been Brute Force,
hulking frame, liver lips, blunt stare aggressive
as a prowling shark’s. “Everybody’s bad Nigger,”

smirked the Esquire title underneath the close-up
of a countenance imposing as a fifth face
on Mount Rushmore, sweat-beaded blowup

of what you might glimpse just before
an eighteen-wheeler barreled through you.
Everybody’s heavyweight stripped down

to the raw essentials: bone and muscle rage
and felonies; black trunks with white stripes,
blackout with twinkly stars. We loved the chill

he gave us, our glowing pit bull we sicced
on all contenders, our looming shadow,
our two-time loser from Castle Frankenstein,

until the “phantom punch,” when he sat down
wobbly as a dowager, leaving the floor
to the lippy punk from Louisville. We felt

betrayed, diminished, tongue tied by that
prattling dancer with the couplets and pretty face.
We wanted blood, teeth. Nothing fancy.

John Allman’s latest book, Loew’s Triboro (New Directions), alternates incidents from his hardscrabble childhood in Queens with prose variations on the B-movies that played at the neighborhood’s old movie palace.  Individual poems have appeared in Blackbird: A Journal of Literature and the Arts, Crazyhorse, 5 AM, The Yale Review, Kestrel and many others.  He received two National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships in Poetry.  Loew’s Triboro is his fourth collection from New Directions.

William Trowbridge is Distinguished University Professor at Northwest Missouri State, and Associate Editor of The Laurel Review.  The Complete Book of Kong was published by Southeast Missouri State University Press in 2003.  His first book Enter Dark Stranger drew this appraisal from The San Francisco Chronicle: “These poems are howlingly nasty and perfectly executed…. Trowbridge’s weapons are a deep puzzlement of feeling and a wonderful ear.” “Liston” appears in Perfect in Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali from Southern Illinois University Press.