Luciano Iacobelli’s DOLOR MIDNIGHT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Luciano Iacobelli DOLOR MIDNIGHT Quattro Books, 84pp., $20.00

There is a poetry in gambling and Luciano Iacobelli has written an important book about it. As a child watching the neighbourhood men play dice in the streets, he felt “the poetry crawled across our young souls….”  Like poetry, gambling is an art. The energy of gambling inflames Iacobelli’s language to a high level of poetic speech. ” I come to practice my art…/so that when death arrives/ it’s features will be known.” Iacobelli is a kind of Canadian François Villon who finds glory in his vice: “…it’s always my falls that summon miracles/draw up enough compassion and grace/to bring forth angels.”

Dolor Midnight  is a rich tapestry of stories: portraits of gamblers, anecdotes of addiction. Iacobelli is honest about his own addiction: “take a 16 hour bus ride to New Jersey…/play  3 or 4 hours just to quell the fever/then return home to be back in Toronto by Monday morning/in time to teach my first class.” In the seven sections of the book, Iacobelli writes fascinating poems about the history of cards, dice, horse-racing, casinos, the habits of gamblers, and he reflects brilliantly on the kind of things that go through the mind of a player : “How many birds will land on a branch”; “some say luck can be trained/ you can whistle and it comes.” His speculations rise up from philosophy to religion: “what counted was how nothing became something/how a fish and a loaf/multiply into/ feast.”

Iacobelli’s wit churns out surprising one-liners: debt is ” a sea weighed down/ by its own salt”; nostalgia is “hope walking backwards.” These are very satisfying to read. But, at the heart of his book, is Iacobelli’s effort to articulate why the gambler is driven to take risks after losing. He asks whether it is a “genetic disposition…/or chemical wave washing the brain”? If so, is gambling a vice or a disease? He doesn’t settle on either of these alternatives. Rather, he moves the issue to the spiritual level: taking a gamble is “an attempt to outrun the weight/return to the original lightness.” If that is the case, who can point the finger at “tossing dice for the last time/ a sick old yellow man wears an oxygen mask/ and who is to blame him….” Iacobelli’s art is both ruthless and compassionate. If I had to choose a single word to describe the poetry of Dolor Midnight,”  that word would be ‘redemptive.’

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Review of Valentino Assenza’s THROUGH PAINTED EYES

Valentino Assenza, Through Painted Eyes, Piquant Press, $19.95

Here are some admirable lines from Through Painted Eyes, Valentino Assenza’s first full-length collection of poems: “that precious/subliminal taste/of the past through/my senses.” These lines say that though his form resembles chopped prose, the lines are in fact made up of ‘spoken word’ held together by the real voice of a sensitive personality. Assenza’s memories come through his senses, and this conveys the livingness of the episodes and characters making up his personal epic journey into the past. Whether he is chronicling growing up with his mother in Toronto neighbourhoods, or among relatives in Sicily where he spent summers with his father, Assenza’s memories carry with them a sense of life: “my father peeling/me a cucumber from/the garden,/ and a lizard/crawling across a stone wall.”

Through Painted Eyes contains a gallery of portraits, notably Assenza’s father, grandfather, relatives and neighbourhood characters drawn so you get what these people meant to him, and still mean. The portrait of Jack the barber and his ‘victims’ is touching and deft, conveying a sense of neighbourhood life in the class of Laurence Hutchman’s Two Maps of Emery, and that is makes me think somebody should appoint Assenza poet laureate of a Toronto neighbourhood, perhaps Leslieville.

Whether he writes about life in Sicily or in Toronto, many of Assenza’s spoken words are in the Sicilian dialect, and he scatters phrases throughout these poems, where they function like charms and spells and incantations summoning up a richness in the mouth that is one of the more rewarding effects of reading his work, and all the more so if you’ve had a chance to hear him read. “The Tobacconist” is one of his best in performance, where you also get a strong sense of how at ease the author in his world where he is happy to fit in. There are dark touches in the poems due to separation, death, and failure of ambition, but remarkably, there is not a trace of alienation in Through Painted Eyes.


Review of Tom Hamilton’s EL MARILLO by Stanley Fefferman


El Marillo is an elegaic work of great passion focused on Hamilton’s late wife, Rhena Hymovitch, and her humanitarian passion to bring ‘boots-on-the-ground’ aid, relief and protection to thousands of displaced ‘campesinos’ during the 1980’s in El Salvador where she lost her life.

El Marillo  commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of her death with poems that record the brutal conditions she and Hamilton worked under from 1984-88 when Hymovitch drowned. The book concludes with a handful of poems in which Hamilton reflects how the passing years have been marked by his devotion to his late wife’s memory.

Hamilton’s verse forms are, as he says, “a consequence of extreme lived experience matched with a poet’s imperative to give it voice.” His lines are filled with facts: “penecillin, amoxocylin, tetracycline, Imodium, with no expiry date/ later than ours we hope….” They also record actions: “…finally we sneak under the bridge turret and sleeping/ machine-gunner as we cross Rio Lempa, then traverse the playa seca,/ to the pueblo, El Marillo, with our forbidden medicinal cargo.”

The thought lines run in long  narrative and discursive stanzas sometimes marked by a complexity of rhythm, a loftiness of diction, and a profundity of thought that blossoms into a more traditional mode of poetry:

“Terror is to the survivor what valor is to the warrior: a priest;/consider the multi-faith corpses whose myriad beliefs/ had this covered; a mystery who will get it;/humour is their talisman, any swatch a field.”

Hamilton’s verse often rises to an eloquence that extends to the limits of speech in lines like ” No hand/ is big enough to cover the river’s bloody mouth…” and, “oblivion/ pure, unmitigated nothingness compels him to pray.” The latter line is from the closing poem of the book. Entitled “Susto,” it serves as the concluding portion of Hamilton’s elegy or lament for the dead, in which, traditionally, the grieving poet reconciles himself to the loss and experiences a realization that allows him to let go. Through the closing lines of the poem, in the formal elegaic manner, the poet uses his ‘susto’, the illness of his grieving, to liberate both the memory of his beloved and himself: “yet, with susto./ you take up and face what you’ve long been seeking/to exorcise: the dread you must embrace to extinguish.”

Tom Hamilton’s chapbook is so personal and so intense, I have to let go of some lines that leave me in the dark, even after several readings. It is possible their darkness forms a part of Hamilton’s intention, as he seems to indicate in the closing lines of this remarkable poem: “bituminous train cars,/ their tomorrows trail off; each day/to follow they ‘ll see me, not whole, but if not for the darkness, they wouldn’t see me at all and they wouldn’t know.”

El Marillo won 1st place in the 2018 Big Pond Rumours Chapbook Awards. I say it possesses the ‘gravitas’ to earn a permanent place in the archives of this country and beyond.