Review by James Bourey: A Grammar for Snow by Richard Luftig
Some poets write weighty, hard thinking pieces about small and large subjects. They seem so serious and burdened by their work. Perhaps in their non-poet moments they are happy and pleasant folks. I would hope so. Richard Luftig writes, in this collection, hard thinking pieces about ideas and things, small and big. But he seems to be having such a good time doing his work. And that attitude (if I can call it that) translates to a brilliant collection of poems, a collection that is fun to read even when it gets serious and deep.
In the first poem of the collection “Compromise County, Illinois” Luftig establishes himself as a Midwestern author, and he does that with vivid landscapes, an understanding of the history and people who claimed, then often lost, their lands. Other poems in this book look at places and events throughout the Midwest: “Along the Ohio” “Speeding Through Kansas” “The Last Clothesline in South Dakota” and “Cornflowers” represent the Midwestern viewpoint. But this author is not as firmly set in place, as say, Ted Kooser, though Luftig has a similar tone and sense of humor.
From that opening poem we are drawn into this world of varied landscapes, rural and small-town voices, beauty and harshness. Luftig is not afraid of longer poems and he writes them with grace, a syntax full of variety, and language and images that create a familiar reality presented in fresh ways. In the second poem of the collection “Old Car Parade” we meet people driving and riding in Studebakers and Packards until we get to the final car and an elderly couple. When they appear we enter the recollections of the man and find in these final lines
“… those days when
he would kiss her and kiss her
and she could think of nothing but him.”
That final “thought” turns a relatively common event completely around and it becomes a beautifully told love story. Well done narrative shows up on many, many pages in this collection
and yet the lyrical quality of the work is never lost.
Some of these poems may do some remembering, but they are not an artificial assemblage of sentimental nostalgia. The views are measured. There is a hard edge where a hard edge needs to be. There is a persona poem “Agnes at One-Hundred” where the voice becomes Agnes’ musings about how her appearance has changed over her lifetime. It’s a humorous poem even as it ends with these lines:
“I’ve simply learned that age rests
on one’s shoulder like a quiet
bird, not tame but not exactly
An even more humorous poem is “George Washington’s Bridge” which discusses the great president’s dental difficulties. It would be a terrible thing if I revealed the final convoluted pun of a punch line which has something to do with chrome and Hollandaise sauce. It’s awful and completely satisfying. Other pieces – “Ode to Bacon” “A Note to My Unemployment Insurance Counselor” “Irrational Numbers” among them – are funny but are never poorly written. They add seasoning to a collection that would have been good without them. But who doesn’t like a little seasoning?
“A Grammar for Snow” - the titular poem of the collection – is a combination ars poetica and love poem. Or, maybe it’s just one or the other. It is another example of fine craft containing fresh language and fascinating line breaks. This poem also has “graupel,” a word for snow that I’ve never seen in a poem before. Discovering a detail like this only enhances the appeal of this poet and this collection. This is a book that deserves a place in MFA programs, high school English classes and your personal bookshelves.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook “Silence, Interrupted” was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for the Broadkill Review.