Testing Coins: On Al Basile’s Tonesmith

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By Al Basile
(Antrium House, 2017, 147pp, $23)

The career path for poets has become a rut. You get your MFA, maybe another degree or two, and you enter the academic job market, chanting timor mortis every step of the way. It is often refreshing, then, to consider the lives and careers of poets who, for better or worse, cut their own peculiar paths. Al Basile is such a poet. One doesn’t speak of his career, but careers. His first collection, titled A Lit House: 100 Poems 1975-2011, at once announced itself as a debut and a retrospective. While writing the poems collected in that book, Basile was pursuing two other careers: one as a private school teacher, the other as a cornet player and blues singer. The latter career, still going strong, has amassed 14 solo recordings and numerous nominations for Blues Music Awards by The Blues Foundation. Both paths, as musician and teacher, as well as a stint in the Army, come together in his poems.

Basile’s second book, much like his first, defies expectations. Weighing in at 99 poems and 147 pages, Tonesmith is not the slim volume of contemporary poetry you are used to encountering. An introduction by Christopher Ricks and digital access to quality recordings of all the poems read by the poet further set this collection apart. The poems are arranged, à la W.H. Auden, alphabetically by title—no hemming and hawing over whether each piece fits into a thematic schema for Basile. The dominant form of the collection, as with Basile’s previous book, is a sort of blank verse anecdote, which often forms the basis of an essay in verse, depicting an encounter between the speaker and a wide-ranging cast of friends, family, famous blues and jazz musicians, and ex-lovers. Christopher Ricks, in his introduction, comments upon the rather old-fashioned belief that “… the arts, and especially literature, have as one of their high demands, aspirations, and achievements, the realization of and the imparting of wisdom, that markedly old-fashioned—let’s face it, obsolete—property.” Basile believes that this idea is worth dusting off and preserving even while acknowledging that our understanding of what constitutes wisdom must, like all else, change with time. Upon finishing the collection, one comes away with the feeling of having just left an engrossing dinner conversation with a man who has lived and loved deeply and has distilled from experience a series of lessons, learned from others or figured out on his own, that he feels compelled to impart.

I should disclose here that I am familiar with the sound of Al’s voice at the dinner table. We first met about ten years ago at the West Chester poetry conference and have engaged in a sporadic correspondence. If you’ve spent enough time in the poetry world, you know the feeling of recognition that comes upon encountering a poem in print that you first read in workshop or email. So it was occasionally with me, reading Tonesmith. (The vast majority of the poems were new to me.) Whether my acquaintance with the author compromises my objectivity as a reviewer, or contributes to the context I am able to bring to this review, the following paragraphs must show.

The Al Basile of the dinner table, that deep-living imparter of wisdom, appears everywhere in the collection, usually as a given poem’s speaker. But even when Basile assumes the identity of another, as he does in “Hope Speaks,” his hunger to find and affirm the lessons of a given moment drives the poem. “Hope Speaks” is one of the collection’s few dramatic monologues, and it begins with an epigraph explaining that “Hesiod’s 8th century B.C. account of the Pandora myth uses the word ‘pithos,’ which was a large storage jar; it was mistaken for the word ‘box’ in the later Latin translation.” This distinction may seem trivial at first, until we come upon lines that reveal the jar was “roomy enough/to store great quantities of grain or oil, / or even house alive or dead a man/driven to such lengths by poverty.” The poem also reminds us that, along with all the toils and troubles of the world, Pandora’s jar contained hope. This insistence on careful precision is a hallmark of Basile’s poetic voice. In poem after poem, he takes pains to get it right about cooking liver sausage, playing his cornet, throwing a baseball, writing a poem, leaving a lover. Basile’s favored mode is the procedural: applying intense, precise concentration on the nitty gritty of getting things done and doing them with pride and care. The other dominant strain in these poems, and what lends the best of them their considerable power, is the poet’s determination to face the past, no matter how painful, with an unflinching eye. As he has Hope say about Pandora and that fateful, man-sized jar:

Against her will she must approach again the source of all her troubles, open up to all its possibilities, and dare to let me out. I call to her, and wait.

While “Hope Speaks” is a persona poem in the truest sense of the term, whereby the poet speaks through an explicitly established mask of identity, most of the poems in Tonesmith build an authorial persona out of the material of Basile’s own life and memory. As one might expect, a great number of these poems reflect on the poet’s other careers. Among the poems that recollect his life as a teacher, the most entertaining would have to be “Black and Tan Fantasy.” It recounts a story from the earliest days of Basile’s life as a teacher. Though the private boys’ school has hired him to teach high school students, he agrees to lead a middle school music class for one day and, as he humorously remarks, “one would be all it took.” He plays a recording of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” for the boys, trying to instill an appreciation for Bubber Miley’s plunger mute style of horn playing (an epigraph to the poem provides the teaching point his students miss). When the horn begins to sound, one of the boys exclaims, “That sounds like it’s for strippers!” Before Basile can steer the conversation back to more academic considerations, the boy is on his feet, miming a striptease, and “within what seemed like seconds, an audition / for a Hoochy Coochy Chorus line was in / full swing, with every boy a writhing star.”

The teacher keeps his cool, even as the class strips first shirts, then pants, “until the room was filled, / like any locker room, with naked boys.” When the music stops, the boys just stand there, facing their unfazed teacher, who finally addresses their behavior by calmly asking, “What are you going to do now?” Well, what can they do now? They get dressed and sit back down. “The thing is,” Basile concludes, “never give them what they want.” This concluding line is satisfying because it reveals a great deal about the funny and somewhat disturbing scene that precedes it. It explains the logic of the teacher’s behavior as well as the motivations behind the boys’ misbehavior. It works in much the same way as the best punch lines, by giving at the absolutely last second the one piece of withheld information that locks all that comes before it into place. “Black and Tan Fantasy” is a poem that manages to be funny within a form (blank verse narrative) that is not readily associated with humor. The result is a light poem that hints at heavy considerations: the divide between teacher and pupil, wisdom and folly, knowledge and ignorance.

In many of the poems, the voice of experience remains as cool as the teacher in “Black and Tan Fantasy.” For every problem he knows the solution well in advance. So the poems that hint at the limits of wisdom, that allow doubt and confusion to overwhelm the speaker’s best laid plans, come at refreshing intervals in the collection. “At the Beach” reflects on the divide between age and youth like no other poem in the collection, and it does so by putting the experienced speaker on more equal footing with his youthful counterparts. It also includes some of the most beautiful lines of description in the book. Here is the opening strophe:

Right now the clouds, swift-moving, all are somewhere else, the breeze has lulled, the sun direct above this quiet spot, drenching the beach in blocks of color clear, sharp-lined, concise. Meanwhile on blankets, hiding in a bunch, the young are trying things they’ve heard about, or seen, believing lies their bodies tell them.

That the bodies of the young are telling them lies tells us as much, if not more, about the speaker as it does about what the young are doing on their blankets. The speaker devotes some attention to their activities:

Girls have studied closely how to look while peeling off their shirts, the crossing of the hands over the head, the languid tug, and how to drop and step out of their jeans.

Meanwhile, the boys:

…reduced to parts, know what to do but not the way they’ll feel—and showing what you feel, they’ve learned, just leads to complications.

Finally, the speaker’s attention returns to the beach, venturing into the surf:

The water is inviting—placid, warm up to your knees. You see down to the bottom, or so it seems, until the undertow sucks at your heels…

Basile demonstrates, in this poem and many others, that he is familiar with undertows, particularly those that pull at the boys and girls pulling off their clothes. “At the Beach” is among the book’s most powerful poems because the conclusion it draws from experience is not very tidy; whereas the speaker of “Black and Tan Fantasy” remains sure of himself throughout the poem, the speaker of “At the Beach” begins in certainty and ends by acknowledging that, while our knowledge can help keep us safe from vast, impersonal forces, those forces still loom, much larger than us and able in an instant to carry us off.

Another poem that tests the limits of wisdom is “Mushroom Hunters, 1957.” Basile looks back to a childhood memory of Sicilian immigrants drawing upon their experience in the Old Country to hunt for mushrooms in the woods surrounding their new home in the States. He is not invited to go with them, so Basile must imagine the hunt wherein “Old Country truths still served them in the new.” He is, however, granted access to their return:

For all that mushroom gathering was hidden from me at nine, I’d see when they returned their treasure: secret creatures swelled at midnight, heavy with their oily essences which stained the paper bags in dark, wet circles everywhere they touched. When tumbled out across the kitchen counter, plumped up dreams or languid fancies, visible, could not have stupefied like these, stubby and hunched, buff-domed, or tendril-tall and gently turned with undersides close-vaned and delicate, still dressed in clinging flecks of moist black earth and borrowed colors, here and there exploding in flaring ochres or smooth bluish-black.

This is a description worthy of Elizabeth Bishop, folded into sentences that tumble through meter and interrupted syntax just as the mushrooms tumble from the paper bags, an exquisite passage. But now, Basile tells us, the real work begins. They must test the mushrooms for poison. Accordingly, they boil them with a silver half dollar in the pot. If the coin blackens, the whole crop must be tossed. This test, Basile informs us, is dangerously inadequate: “…look-alikes in a new country may / deceive and threaten, deadly, though the coin / comes clean.” Suddenly the poem expands beyond the childhood memory into a meditation on the fraught, conflicted nature of “familiar truths.” The poem leaves us with a question: “Where is our testing coin…?”

So far I have focused on poems wherein Basile’s considerable talent shines as bright as that silver testing coin. With any collection, you can’t expect every page to brim with wonders, and Tonesmith probably suffers more than average for being more than double the typical length. Indeed, the major fault of this book lies in its copiousness. Some of the poems need a few more revisions, and some simply fail to take off. Take, for instance, “Dark Certainties,” which philosophically has much to recommend it. The speaker of the poem recounts a conversation with a retired friend who is “disconsolate at sixty,” full of self-loathing, and heedless of the various words of advice the speaker offers to help him enjoy his life: “unworthiness / becomes his self-fulfilling condemnation.” The speaker gives up trying, and concludes that belief—in God, or in anything, I take it—may be “…insufficient, but it’s necessary.” Here is the same qualifying assessment of wisdom and certainty we encounter in “Mushroom Hunters, 1957,” but absent are that greater poem’s fine particulars. About his friend the speaker says, “he’s kept up with his consumption of the rare / expensive goods and services designed / to flatter by their acquisition….” In these three lines Basile misses an opportunity to fit sports cars, fine wines, tailored suits, and other trappings of wealth into his sinuous blank verse. Travel, the speaker tells us, occupies his friend “with its needed planning, / execution, and recovery.” Again, one yearns for some actual details—what exotic beach resorts or compelling historical sites failed to eradicate the man’s ennui? The poem gives us nothing but abstractions, and as a result fails to elevate its argument into art.

What makes “Dark Certainties” and certain other lesser poems in Tonesmith so frustrating to read is that they are paired with some of the finest poems I have encountered in a long time. As I stated above, you can’t expect every page in any given collection to brim with wonders. But that doesn’t mean that you still won’t cringe when the poem on page 34 is a great letdown after the excellent poem on page 33. I wish Basile had cut a fair number of poems from this collection, but if I had to choose between my ideal, slimmer version of Tonesmith or no Tonesmith at all, I would not hesitate to say leave it, leave it all in, every word, and let the readers find their own favorites. As I read the collection, I compiled a list of poems that moved me as profoundly as any poem has. I will keep returning to them. Many more of the poems, while not quite as accomplished, distinguish themselves with uncommonly excellent craft and execution. All of the poems reflect the life and interests of a poet who is like no other writing today.