Saturday, July 11, 2015

Rest well, Pic

Today, after a long battle with brain cancer, one of my favorite authors died. Tom Piccirilli is an author I found on my own. No reviews pointed me toward his work. I found him on the shelf of a bookstore and I knew he was speaking my language.

Back in 2006, my semester at the University of Idaho as an undergrad, I emailed Tom to talk about poetry. He'd released some poetry by then (and more later), and I was required to do a poetry review for a class. I don't have those emails anymore, which is sad. I do, however, have the assignment, including a quote from him.

I wish I had reached out more.

For your reading pleasure and to honor Tom, here is the assignment I wrote nine years ago about his poetry.

T.J. Tranchell
English 291
Waiting My Turn to Go Under the Knife
Tom Piccirilli

Tom Piccirilli is better known as a fiction writer. He has published in the mystery, western, and horror genres. That is how I found him. I read his award-winning novel The Night Class the week before I began my college education. Recently, I have discovered his poetry, specifically the collection titled Waiting My Turn to Go Under the Knife. It is a gruesome title and much of the work contained with in its pages is equally gruesome. There is, however, a sense of reality in the poems that helps the more morbid aspects of Piccirilli’s poetry become acceptable.
            To show how the average can seem greater than it is, here is an example from the poem “Big G & Little J”:
Today, the letter opener opened 3 overdue bill notices,
a royalty check for $12.47, a fan letter from a professor
hoping I'll stop by his class,
and 2 pieces of hate mail saying
heaven is going to put out my eyes soon,
Big G & Little J are gonna take me to the mattresses

Right off, we know this isn’t your everyday kind of poetry. The poem deals with a working writer and the mundane tasks of everyday life. Adding in the hate mail gives it just enough twist to know we aren’t in what could be called a “normal” world.
The implied intensity is even more evident in his poem “My Friend Ernie, Trying to Light a Match.” The subject of the poem is a man named Ernie who called the speaker of the poem then forgot he had done so. By the time the friend arrived at Ernie’s house, Ernie was trying to light a match in order to set his house on fire.
            Dude, I said,
you invite me over for a beer and you're gonna blow up
the house? Have I
offended you that bad?
No, he said, I just forgot you were coming over.
You called me ten minutes ago. It's the kind of thing you ought
to remember.

Piccirilli’s use of everyday language makes what is an extraordinary situation feel commonplace. While it might not be the most “poetic” it still works. Let’s get this straight: he isn’t trying to subdue you with flowery language. He is trying to bash your skull in a baseball bat.
Form is not a huge concern for Piccirilli, either. He is much more concerned with the emotional impact of the poem. When asked about form in an email I sent him he replied, “The focus is simply on what I want to say and how well I can get some kind of emotional resonance across to the reader.”
He isn’t afraid to take on more traditional topics, either. His poem “My Grandfather's Fear Cut Loose Through the Decades to Perch at the Foot of My Disheveled Bed” is about his grandfather’s struggles with mental illness and his eventual death. Not only is the subject more familiar to readers of poetry, but the language and syntax reads more like the average free verse poem.
he's watching a rat
that roams around his sick room,
circling his bed all night, each eternal hour
leading into another week, another month, an endless year
until at the dawning of a new world war, with his lungs
full of pneumonia,
the rat of final repentance, bathed in rapture's light,
took its ensuing pity.
Finished him off,
and began its long restless wait
for my birth.

            The poem maintains the emotional subject matter of his other work, but is constricted by trying to sound more like poetry. This is a problem for Piccirilli throughout Waiting. He is best when he goes for the throat with no concerns of how it looks, only how it sounds and if the reader can feel it.
            From the final stanza of “My Friend Ernie, Trying to Light a Match”:
I took away his matches and turned off the gas,
laid one into his gut until he was coughing blood,
grabbed the Tequila,
went home and called a girl from high school
I hadn't talked to in ten years. She was just sitting there
with nothing to do.

            The strength of the poem is that, by this point, we feel the speaker’s frustration with his friend. And, after reading Waiting My Turn to Go Under the Knife, I too felt the desire for a bottle of tequila and the voice of a not so crazy friend.

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