Halflives by Andrew Gottlieb. New Michigan Press, $7.
Reviewed by Summer Block
It is fitting that Andrew Gottlieb’s chapbook Halflives takes its title from a line by James Salter, the Korean War veteran known for a down and dirty style that eschews ponderous ruminations in favor of swift, powerful images and manly forthrightness. “Still, it’s depressing,” the quotation reads on Gottlieb’s title page, “One feels like a fugitive from half a dozen lives.” Though Gottlieb follows Salter’s example of clear, concise language, his empathy for “half a dozen” other lives is uniquely his own. In an era of writing that can be so challenging as to seem antagonistic to the reader, Gottlieb is refreshingly approachable. His style is human, narrative, and observational.
For a man who makes his home in soggy Washington, Gottlieb’s poetry is redolent with heat: “leaping heat seers skin deep,” “long dry days,” “hot sun burns,” “the heat of summer,” “still air,” “black smoke and grease,” “heat, static as a junk car,” “stale air.” The result is poems that feel at times claustrophobic, suffocating. “Standing Patterns,” the first poem in the volume, constructs the American South out of rusty screen door hinges, sweltering summers, and the skitter of roaches. A fretful young bride feels the still, oppressive heat stifle possibility. Time is slow: “Second hands clack / and you see how often life is a wait / you weather.” Only in “Spider” can Gottlieb say to the wise creature of the title, “You know time’s an ally.”
Gottlieb’s portrayal of women is kind, even when not very nuanced--he has the compassion to feel a young girl’s “hope [as] a seed in warm peat”--but the subtlety of poems like “Standing Patterns” is missing from “All She Wants” and “Amaryllis,” explorations of teen girlhood that feel more voyeuristic than empathetic. What’s lacking is the wisdom of a line like “A man / will remember a love that left him / but will settle again for his house, porch, family / noise like a TV, and with a cold beer / in the backyard, he’ll know the chilly twinge / of unreceptive things piled in his garage,” from the excellent “Choosing Channels.”
If the women in these poems feel somehow false, Gottlieb is a master of masculine reticence, the long ache of stubborn silence: “How two men / tooled of the same line / can argue themselves to silence.” The fishermen in “On Mere Point” “toss these baits in frail hope / that one dark mouth will take the hook, / end up caught in a cold bucket / of lost talk,” and while “Men are good / at missing out on lessons,” he explains, his work nonetheless offers many poignant ones. There are the occasional clichés--strippers, dive bars, taciturn men with beer bellies and sad eyes--but his consideration gives them depth and substance.
Gottlieb is on his surest footing when mapping the losses that make up family life. “Tourist Canoe” feels less fresh and more familiar: the scope is too wide--not the intimate wanderings of a spider or struggles of a hooked fish, but the whole American West--and the canvas is too large, the brushstrokes too hasty. “California’s ancient golden invitation” is a well-worn idea, without the dash and vigor of lines like “The weather’s like a fight you want a knife in: / unpredictable and quick.”
Gottlieb’s gift for observation serves nature no less than his characters. He takes careful note of weather patterns, insects, birds--a function of his characters’ stoic patience. But nature here is not all flowers and rainbows. Halflives is full of images that force us to confront the gross bodily manifestations of illness and decay: “thin, wrinkled lips taut over teeth / reddened with blood she coughed,” “clothes clotted and black.” Families hold vigils over the dying or stand helpless in the face of calamity. Infirmity and death are ever present, as a reminder of our true, physical selves. In “Fugue For Wheelchair,” Gottlieb gently chides, “We’d find my father sprawled on the hard wood / floor of the master bedroom, fallen from / his scooter--as we called it, hoping names / could make things not what they were.” Euphemisms are an indulgence, a false comfort. In “Stand-Off, Bedside,” gathered relatives implore their dying grandmother to hush her anguished muttering “as if silence / could comfort our watching,” but the grandmother speaks on in a rush of words that carry her life away with a “march” and a “song.”
Despite the book’s title, these works are less about incompleteness than metamorphosis. Here stasis is a misery, but change is still avoided, or impossible, or unrelentingly cruel. Only animals, not freighted with fear, can live spontaneously and without regret: “Overturned, a boat / that doesn’t float will shade a spider or a mink / or some other surprise, live or long past / needing shelter.”