November 5, 2009

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After the Honeymoon, by Nathan Graziano, Sunnyoutside Press, 2009, 94 pages
Manchester’s own Nathan Graziano sure knows how to write first lines. Here are a couple from his latest collection, After the Honeymoon:

“An old woman sips Moxie and sits in the shade / beneath a blue umbrella.”
“I could’ve touched their booth from my stool / with a severed leg or a long strand of female hair.”
“Jack cracks a beer as Tiffany tells him to leave.”

That last line is also from the first poem in this nearly perfect collection, and one of my favorites. “The Transients Next Door” is a gleeful ensemble piece, a collection of surly, angry and down-on-their-luck characters I dare anyone to read about and not think of Manchester.

First a disclaimer: Graziano also writes occasional reviews for this paper.

I’ve been a fan of Graziano since his first real collection, Not So Profound, was released in 2003. When his second collection, Teaching Metaphors, came out two years ago I called him our city’s finest poet. Three quarters of After the Honeymoon cements that moniker. I’ll get to the last quarter in a moment.

After the Honeymoon, a series of sometimes painful, observational or character-driven poems, is divided, roughly into four thematic sections — the nostalgia of youth, the demons of addiction, the terror and uncertainty of marriage and the joys of parenthood. The poems in the first three sections are riveting, and sometimes very sadly funny.

One of the best short descriptive poems I’ve read in a long while is “Home Cookin’”, a sweet, six-sentence meditation on cooking breakfast for the narrator’s family. Graziano says so much in so few words and ends the piece with the two-line knockout punch of “His cigarette rests in the ashtray like a tired leg. The Tabasco tilts toward the eggs.” A thesis should be written on those 16 words.

Later in section three, Graziano as narrator opens up so sharply about the pain, compromise and soul-searching associated with marriage that some of poems made me wince.

In one called “One Time You Called Me O.J.” the narrator and his wife fight literally and figuratively. The poem is hard to read and funny at the same time, a touchy feat to pull off for any writer.

In “Thrift Store Shopper” the narrator is bemused at the fact that “I now move through my married days in another man’s suit coat” and wonders if that other man was just too fat to fit into the thing or if he died.

Perhaps the reason I recommend Graziano so highly, though, is that he is so regionally connected to Manchester, and I say that as a compliment. In “Remembering Our First Apartment” the narrator listens in on an argument between two neighboring apartment dwellers that I swear I have heard many times here, perhaps many times in any city, in any place where there’s not enough space between those living on the edge.

Now, there is redemption in this collection of misbegots and addicts, and it comes at the expense of the rest of the book. In the fourth section, the narrator’s child, a girl, is born, and Graziano switches gears so violently, it throws much of the good work that came before right off the tracks. The message here, in one rather gooey poem after another, appears to be that the miracle of birth can wipe clean the sins, suspicions and doubts of the past. And maybe it can. But the leap is too much, the change of tone too forced. The narrator’s voice jarringly softens and his eyes become moist. In one poem, the narrator listens to his wife and daughter in the tub. In another he gazes lovingly on his daughter wrapped in a pink blanket. There’s nothing wrong with adoration poetry, but it’s out of place here — like if Disney had written the final act to a Chekhov play.

Still, I’m giving Graziano plenty of breathing space. After the Honeymoon is a fine addition to this young poet’s body of work. Simple thoughts simply written, deeply felt meditations on everyday life, and ability to write locally with universal themes; if Manchester ever is looking for an official city poet, I will be the first to nominate Graziano. B+Dan Szczesny