Achieving lyricism in free verse narrative poems is like walking a tightrope. The poet can fall into lines full of beautiful language and music and lose the story, leaving the reader wondering what that poem was all about. Or the poet can focus so heavily on the narrative that the reader wonders why the poem wasn’t written as a short story or bit of creative nonfiction. Eric Greinke, in his new collection called Break Out, walks that tightrope with confidence, making poems that engage as strongly as any well written short story while retaining rhythm, music, and surprising language.
In this volume of forty-one poems, most pieces are solidly narrative with a clear plotline, occasional dialogue, detail that brings a vivid picture of time and place, and an ending that usually surprises and sometimes shocks the reader. But Mr. Greinke never forgets the elements that create poetry. Read aloud and listen to the rhythms in the opening lines of "A Human Chain":
A farmer from Georgia & his wife
were on the beach at Panama City
celebrating their anniversary,
when they saw a group gathering
on the sand beside the pier,
The insistent rhythm is sustained through the entire poem, pushing the narrative of a life-saving event. When we reach the final lines, after a happy resolution, we read
Like ants, they had touched
that place deep inside
where survival begins & ends.
This unexpected conclusion is more than an odd comparison. It might also be a philosophical question, a thought that may cause the reader to stop, think, then go back to reconsider the whole well-crafted poem.
Some of the poems in this collection are about issues we see in the news; homeless people, domestic violence, child abuse, racism, and more. But the poems are always driven by individual human stories, never pronouncements, or sloganeering. Each story is honest, with the poet’s real reaction delivered in a way that shows his close attention and emotional involvement.
But not all the poems in the collection are issue-based. There is a touching love poem called "Love Match" which is full of wild connections listed in a litany of lines that end with these four;
My wife with her wildflower eyes
My wife with wet eyes for prisoners
My wife with wooden eyes ready to chop
& eyes of calm water, raked earth, fire and wind
And there are poems that are not easily categorized. Intensities "In Ten Cities" is a ten part work, each part made up of ten lines. The author revisits specific memories of each place, weaving a few details that create a broad, powerful impression. While the impression of each city may seem familiar, the poet never slips into any typical travel writing clichés.
There are several poems made up of couplets that seem odd at first reading. The titular poem of this collection is nearly surreal;
Telescopic microorganisms contort
in disproportionate macrospasms,
their ecstatic mutations subsonic.
Masochists pass out mass market snacks.
Yet, the sound, humor, and imagery make the poem as fun to read as it is difficult to figure out. An anti-war poem called "That’s Entertainment" uses strong realism to make its point as it begins;
Bloody soldiers lie like sticks
On a hurricane beach
Bionic limbs replace shot off
Branches, grotesque woodpiles
And the poem concludes with;
A militia of monkeys reigns
Over the temporarily insane drains
We’re still marching in perfect order
Into the red-stained, funeral smog
Mr. Greinke’s poems are always interesting and original. They are also bolstered by scrupulous attention to craft. And this poet has the ability to keep a reader fully engaged through an eclectic, wide-ranging collection that is, for me, one I will return to again and again. This is a book worthy of space on your shelves.
James Bourey, or Jim, is the author of “The Distance Between Us” forthcoming from Cold River Press. He is a regular contributor to The Broadkill Review and is published in many fine journals.