The opening lines of the title poem in this wonderfully moving collection were what made me want to read the whole book. I was not remotely disappointed. Here is a sample of what hooked me:
At a sidewalk sale
you will meet a dealer
he will tell you
he has monuments of old gods
for sale, “Pick a God,
and worship however you please.”
From fifty cents to a dollar
Testimonial to Myth
Renaissance to Pop Culture
he will tell you
the Fertility Goddess is for display only.
“She gave birth the material world
you know…a raw beef
cooking in a dream oven. And guess what…
the dream came true.”
What captured my attention was something that Mr. Algera achieves in several of his poems. He maintains a calm, almost otherworldly tone when dealing with fraught and sometimes explosive issues. It is not that the poems are detached or unemotional. On the contrary, I’m not ashamed to say that I found myself shedding more than one tear while reading Old Gods for New. Despite this, Mr. Algera demonstrates serious artistry and consideration over even the most personal poems in his book. He never comes off as merely reactive but puts what are, for most of us, linguistically crippling feelings through the purifications of verse and makes us examine them in totally new ways. As far as I’m concerned, this is a large part of what being a poet is all about.
Something else I noticed in these opening lines was their subtle but very powerful musicality. That is something that has grown quite rare in poetry today. While I don’t think that’s always a bad thing, it is exciting to see a poet use lyricism in such a fresh manner. Intriguingly, some of the most musical poems in the book are short and almost haiku-like. One of my favorites, “Every Person has a Price” can be quoted in its entirety:
Every person has a talent
Every person has a price
I can’t afford to marry your brilliance
so I must spend my bitterness
making most of my time
I would strongly recommend reading this over a few times. I did and found myself going over some old emotional ground. While my aesthetic recommendation is undiminished, I would add the small caveat that reading this poem on New Year’s Eve might not be the best idea if you are given to introspection.
The only real problem with Old Gods for New is not in the poetry itself. Instead, I found myself exhausted at times by the variety of the poems. When I was done, I actually thought “There were two, maybe even three books in there!” A poem that demonstrates a wonderfully bittersweet humor like “Look, It’s Better This Way” feels like it’s from a totally different planet than the startlingly ambitious “Strange Medicine” or the heartfelt “On My Mother at Age Seventy.” It might be interesting to see Mr. Algera prepare smaller collections, more tightly organized by style and/or theme.
Overall however, every poem in the book is more than worth reading. While they are dramatically different from each other, the three poems I mentioned in the last paragraph are absolutely superb. Mr. Algera’s versatility is as remarkable as his basic poetic talent. I recall reading Allen Ginsberg praise a book by Gregory Corso, describing it as “a box of crazy toys.” That quote came into my mind when I finished Mr. Algera’s book. Many of his poems give the kind of joy that toys can bring. However, I wouldn’t describe these toys as crazy. Rather, they are sometimes sad, frequently provocative in the best sense of the word, and always incredibly wise.