Review by Candice Louisa Daquin
Title: Lastbench, North American protest edition,
Editor: Tanvir Ratul
Publisher: AntiVirus Publication www.lastbench.org, November 2020
Lastbench is an anthology written in the time of Trump and Covid-19, acting as a voice for those who are frustrated with the news cycle, wishing for something more visceral. It is unapologetically against Trump and considers his Presidency to be the terror that began the downfall. Whether true or not, this is the slant of this publication and it will appeal to those who feel similarly and are frustrated by the current office. That said, it’s aware things will not change simply because a President changes. Many of the issues brought up, are systemic.
If you are looking to read a collection of poets who explore the myriad ways of frustration against the current administration and the over-all ineffectiveness of politics en mass, you may find a lot here to sink your teeth into. Irrespective of which political hat you wear, you cannot fail to appreciate the solid authorship of the writers involved in this inaugural issue. Clearly the editor has gone out of his way to ensure those who were featured were the very best writers he had, and the writing is impressive.
I particularly appreciated the IMMEDIACY of this publication, you feel as if you are reading in ‘real time’ – this highlighted in Jennifer Lagier’s piece, ‘A New War’, that begins with a quote from Michael Cohen, “I fear if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Let’s hope the prophecy isn’t true, but either way, we’re in the moment, the writing is now, the authors are current, this is why we have technology, and this is how Lastbench is relevant and interesting.
With such publications, poetry needs to have that edited, clear, precision that speaks to the point immediately and cuts to the chase. If it goes on too much, we lose focus, because this is all about the punchline, the bottom line, the key points, the overview of what is occurring. We don’t want massive detail; we want provocative thoughts, and this is how this publication reads.
Personally, it doesn’t matter whether I agree with the politics or not, I can appreciate the voice and what is being described through poetry, as well as the humor and horror behind it. This is a writ of 2020 and it’s deeply relevant because of its collective moment.
On a purely poetic appreciation level, I really liked Mary Ellen Talley’s piece, ‘Fools Like Me’ for its simplicity, and jarring vernacular, it’s a classic resistance poem that could have been written in WW2 as easily as now, but has the edge of today, and the sorrow of loss etched all over it. I must really like Talley’s work because her second piece, ‘Veering from a Villanelle’ was equally haunting to me. The line: “Come again, USA, nation of truce, nation of trust” was chilling.
‘Love Letter to the President’, by John Milkereit, was another modern horror/humor mixture that I appreciated for its sardonic wit and deft amusement with reality. So many memorable lines like: “I can’t love you as much as I love a stranger, / or Joseph Stalin’s ghost might be watching.” It’s hard to go wrong with writing like that, veering on the classic.
Some pieces didn’t do anything for me, but I’m sure others could find a lot in them, it’s all about what you’re feeling as you read them and how they relate to your own ideas at the time, as much as how stellar they are literally. For example, I could see what Tom Montgomery was trying to do with ‘untitled’, but I felt ultimately it just read like a dull version of a children’s rhyme and it didn’t catch me beyond that. Compared to this, Marianne Weltman’s ‘Make America Great Again Songbook’ was incredibly clever and very funny, she really took the genre of a children’s rhyme and made it work with the idea of Trump’s campaign slogan as key theme. The lines I found most compelling; “This Land is Your land, This Land is My land / In a prison van to Riker’s Island / Ave Maria, Holy Mother take pity / On asylum seekers lost in this city.” A very, very smart blend of reality and children’s song, leaving you wondering and slightly horrified by the depiction. The core question Dustin Pickering begs in Snake/Shutdown “why did we nourish him? / why did our nation bend?” Lines like these will resonate with those seeking comrades in arms, or just an alternative voice to the mainstream narrative.
‘Summer in Trump’s America’ by Marianne Szlyk, is a haunting version of today’s emptied streets and whether you argue in favor of Trump being culpable in some way for Covid-19 or not, you can appreciate Szlyk’s portrayal of those abandoned streets – as we have all seen them. In Jim Cox’s poem, ‘Earth Day’, we see the other ways writers blame Trump for global-warming and his responses thus, and whilst I am not a huge fan of rhyming, Cox does a terrific job, making something awful, humorous and then reframing it and begging the question, when will it end? Leszek Chudziński’s beautiful poem, ‘Refills Are Free’, really struck a deep chord, it’s a classic poem you’ll think of long after you’ve finished reading with lines like: “Where food is good / And suffering discernible.”
Equally, any survivor will find much in Kelli Russell Agodon’s brave piece, ‘When I Look Into The Face Of The President Of The United States, What I See Is My Trauma Walking Around’. I won’t spoil everything by detailing what I appreciated in each, but there is a little bit for everyone and some enormously talented writers therein. Often when you read a collection of poetry by different poets, you wonder why half of them were included, not so here. The editor(s) have done a superb job of collating the very best, the very now of writing and if poems like Thomas Brush’s “Legacy, don’t stay in your head for hours afterward, percolating and querying at the deepest levels, I don’t know what would.”
I won’t go through all the poems, although I could, and I’d enjoy doing so, which in of itself proves the readability and relevance of this publication. Suffice to say, there are gems here that any vantage point will get something from, and stellar writers with sound awareness of what it takes to write a good poem, irrespective almost, of what you are writing about. Margaret Shafer Paul Shafer, in ‘January 1st’, give a voice to those who do not fit the label of ‘minority’ but feel as disenfranchised by recent events, Cheryl Latif in her blazing poem, ‘Searching for America’, really stunned me with an anthem of these times, so many Americans will relate to, I don’t want to say more, just read and you’ll see. If nothing else, this is half or more of America and what they are thinking, feeling, saying and it’s wise for everyone to listen, because to do less is to miss half of this country’s voices.
There’s even a manifesto at the end, I’ll leave that for you to find. I stand with Rose Drew on this salient last word; “Can’t watch the news but I’m not defeated.”
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Sephardi immigrant from France who lives in the American Southwest. Formerly in publishing, Daquin is now a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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