Book Review

David J.S. Pickering’s latest collection begins with a poem about feeling both at home and on edge in Eastern Oregon. It is a place where the editor of the local newspaper professes his love for religion and the 2nd Amendment, but not for the marriage that Pickering shares with his husband—or, as the poet says, “Not / my rainbow bumper sticker. Not my public / displays.” Though Pickering asserts that he will never “cede. . . to local custom,” he embraces the natural beauty that this region affords, pictured as a “rimrock / evening” with “red lenticular clouds.”

The poet’s complicated relationship to his new home is just one of many divisions that make up the volume. As the book travels back in time, it becomes clear that Pickering has always felt both part of a community and alienated from it. In one poem, he recalls the special praise that he enjoyed from the older women in his family’s orbit, even as they spoke approvingly of “shock treatments” for gay men. Moreover, the unease he felt in his native place persists today. “The Fall Run” recounts an awkward fishing trip with men from his hometown who avoid inquiring about his life, knowing they would not approve. Despite the progress he has made in accepting himself, Pickering admits to thinking that he does not quite measure up to what the men represent.

Nor has moving away solved this problem entirely. City life poses different challenges and offers no safe harbor from alienation. Portland, as it appears in “Blue Easter,” puts stock in youth and turns the poet into an outsider again. Even when writing about marriage, Pickering dwells on his original skepticism that the institution could provide a good framework for his life: marriage offered, to his mind, a “vocabulary I never wanted.” Throughout the book, it is through sympathy, care, and loving relationships that Pickering is able to find happiness in spite of the divisions that run through his life and society.

Some of the most delightful poems in the book are satirical portraits of his family members. “Grammie” Lucille, for example, is vividly sketched in “floral print muumuus,” chain-smoking and “keeping tabs on Kennedy and the Pope.” (Her hatred of Catholicism extends to the presidency.) Irony gives Pickering the tools to confront more serious flaws in his family, particularly his father’s abrasiveness, which kept the two at a distance. Yet, despite their estrangement, the poet recognizes the happy moments that his family has shared, like the car trip in “The Pickerings Go for a Ride.” Moreover, whatever resentment he once felt has dimmed upon seeing them age.

His parents’ declining health prompts a reckoning with his own mortality. Pickering views his later years with an amused eye, not denying that he perceives them as a diminishment, but hardly lamenting the fact. “We’re finding our way into later-middle age, / style intact, eyes on the 401(k), Medicare / our highest aspiration.” Medicare may not be an especially high aspiration, but it is not so low when squared against other possibilities: “Everyone at the hospital wishes me good luck. . . like I am on a game show / where one wrong answer will get me refrigerated / in the basement. . .”

The language in this book is grounded, colloquial, occasionally coarse to signal its realism. Still, at key moments, Pickering reaches for a grander scale. “Vox” begins with a brusque description of the different players in a concert and the jealousy that festers between them. “Those lazy-bastard basses,” for example, “only have to show up in a tux and sing low / to get laid by half the chorus.” Pickering’s language lifts, however, as petty backstage politics give way to a higher purpose:

                                          we are
the first notes sung in Notre Dame,
gothic vaults cupping and ringing us
full of heaven, our amoroso faces
rose windows full of jeweled light.

Such moments are evidence of Pickering’s underlying optimism. The toughness of his tone slips repeatedly to reveal a desire for revelation. In “Duo-Glide,” a driving lesson with his father ends with a message delivered by his parent:

Don’t fight the corners, David, lean
into them. Don’t be afraid. Lean
into them, and you’ll be just fine.

A different poet might have avoided these gestures to avoid sounding sentimental. Yet the effect is hardly mawkish. The lines succeed on their musical and visual qualities. The italics cause the word “lean” to lean over the blankness of an enjambment twice, so the reader, like the driver, must resist “fighting the corners” and swerve to the next line. Besides, Pickering has been so clear-eyed about his father’s flaws that such brief moments of connection feel earned.

The title of the book derives from its final poem: a fitting choice since “Jesus Comes to Me as Judy Garland” combines so many of the threads that run through the volume as a whole. When he describes his early affection for Judy Garland, lip-syncing to her music in his parents’ basement, Pickering remains conscious of the unease he felt as a gay teenager in a hostile environment. At the same time, he recalls the joy of these moments. Indeed, the poem ends with a cosmic lift:

                                                            We’re goin’
to the promised land, notes flung like solar winds,
a celestial borealis flaring on my shoulders,
a feather boa of serpentine light, my fingers
snapping planets and shooting bright fire.

Like several other female figures in this book (Margo Channing of All About Eve, Rose Castorini of Moonstruck), Garland is celebrated for showing the poet not just how to make do, but how to make art out of a difficult life. Her songs transformed his everyday into something otherworldly. Clearly, Pickering turned to poetry so as to accomplish for himself and others what Garland gave to him through her music.

About the Reviewer

Florian Gargaillo is assistant professor of English at Austin Peay State University. His work has appeared in such venues as Modern Language Quarterly, Essays in Criticism, Modernism/Modernity, Journal of Modern Literature, and Twentieth-Century Literature. He is currently at work on a book about postwar poetry and political clichés.