Favorite Bedtime Stories by John FitzGerald
Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2014, 78 pages, paperback
Review by Erna Cooper
There are those of us who support the muse because it is a silenced, treasured part of ourselves, locked away. And there are those who release it without the means of support, because we cannot help ourselves. John M. Fitzgerald, poet and lawyer, fits into both categories. In his collection, Favorite Bedtime Stories, he is both the prisoner and the policeman (of himself, of his psyche), as well as his defender and inquisitor.
Before rendering judgment (or, rather, instead of doing so) let me first say I understand why this happens (or I think I do), for this dual nature emerges when a poet enters the WORLD and struggles, but fails to identify himself there completely; this is what happens when a true poet is blessed and cursed with a powerful intellect— one that sees too much and seeks to break down to the atom a universe both inside and outside of itself at once.
He is the anti-solipsist. Not the one who howls in anger, like Bill O’Reilly, because he knows he’s right about everything while no one seems to see how brilliant he is, but the one who quietly goes on his way fixing things, being reliable and responsible, assuming his role, part-time, as the well-liked, good citizen (not the mega-maniacal boss). And yet he howls inwardly, quietly, because of what he sees, for:
“He [Counsel] don’t let cell phones interrupt and articulates what I [the Poet] disclaim. I swat the muses off me when he leaves. Watch them ascend to my decrease” (p.32).
But why? Because embracing my muse (that is my creative self), which I so badly need, I become soft, vulnerable, open, feeling, unable to become criminal or punitive, which one must be to endure the city streets or succeed in courts of law, in this abrasive world – even worse, in this narcissistic sphere that is Hollywood, a place not known for its humility or innate sense of justice, but its reverence for the “photo op”. How on earth did an attorney for the disabled, a poet with soul and intellect, better yet, an Irishman come to live and write in Los Angeles and write with such laconic verse and labyrinthine thought, full of classical reference, quiet irony and soul, is beyond me. I have much to learn. At first glance, the choice seems masochistic, if not for the obvious sustaining force: that he is married to the lovely poet and actress, Hélène Cardona. But now what about that other muse that “drafts documents”?
“The Likeness [a poet addicted to life-changing lines] gathered us here to reflect. Confused on the surface, the depths concur.
Between boggling, irrelevant arguments, slip in reason. Every so often, one sticks, I’m sure” (p.33).
Yes, we are also sure that his reason and sense of justice will ultimately “stick” somewhere, if not together, but what says Counsel about the poetic Soul?
“Counsel renounces rhyme’s every intention. He’s after a third to apply toward a Jag. Such a twister of systems grown iPod dependent, deleted you [poetry] in his mind but then refrained, [. . . ] just like he didn’t run you over on your bike (34).”
What kind of person would endure this? “No normal poet would put up with it” (34). Indeed.
“But while they piece last night together, let’s work on further fragmenting today” (35).
Let’s pick apart the man who self-compromised (when he went to law school) to put a roof over his head and become a man. Let us see how “invocation works” to keep him alive, inside, for “[e]very local god is summoned” to the courts of soul and unspent desire, while conscience keeps him on the Los Angeles highway and “bloody muses” cut into his line of thought and “Hell is awake” because the “liquor store’s closed” (34).
Throughout the collection we move through discourses and arguments between mythological selves that represent both subjugated voices and identities, on the one hand, that play intermittently, on the other, with the mind and life of the poet, and which argue and interfere with the conscious role of legal Counsel that may resuscitate the nearly dead – out there, if not in here (pointing to my heat and heart)– and give ease and consolation to some of these parties for a time. For, as most writers who hold other jobs know, this responsibility to the world outside, to the rules of law and commerce, give less time and space to the life of escape and solitude that are necessary for art, for while “Counsel evolves in isolation” (38), so it seems does poetry, but
“To be alone?” Impossible. “Do you even know where the Tylenol is?” (39).
“You’re like a lobster seller at McDonalds” trying so hard to appeal to the mind and sensibilities of those who have never tasted your food (39). Who sell “Heaven” every day on TV as a microwavable product, but have never partaken of Elysium fields. And so this poet meanders through the recesses of his mind for sanity and voice in a mind-numbing world, that embalms deadened words, and where “[e]veryone trusts me more than I do” because I’m a lawyer (39). And that’s ok for them, but is it ok for me? Hardly.
That’s not the end of the story. And, thankfully, I don’t believe there is an end, for this malaise gives way to the honey-tongued poet in search of bees everywhere, past and present, classical and post-modern. These beauties he creates out of black holes, even as he disclaims responsibility for, if not the need of, this other ‘self’, this poetic twin, by claiming to be an ordinary man:
“Hey, I ain’t no poet, Jack. Millions are doomed to be me, and why? I swear it was the woman told me the infinite moon was mine” (75).
This is a collection for one familiar both with his role in the world as an “Everyman” and his desire to taste of the tree of Paradise, a Paradise that is not given but created in the mind. John M. Fitzgerald is a poet for writers and men who seek to recapture the subjugated self and save it from drowning and despair, in a world full of suffocating cacophony and deaf ears. This is a collection that, at times, touches the spirit of classical allusion, metaphor and allegory, familiar to John Milton and the ancient Greeks, and yet is, at times, appropriately anchored in the mire of everyday speech. It is a series of dialogues between the self and other (self), poet and Everyman, present and past loves, in an existential quest to understand why some had to die and other voices and personas learn to live with each other in one body. This cohabitation is enough to kill anyone who is both sane and very intelligent. But the breath of life is given and sustained by the poet, before drowning in the world of practicality. And in that darkness, he captures that elusive beauty of the inner voice as of the Coalside Nebulae. He sees the light amidst darkness and there, in that stardust, he resides.
I will keep this book safely planted next to my treasured collection of Paul Auster, John Donne and Yeats – not because they resemble each other stylistically, but because they shed light on the struggle to be civilized men acutely aware of their connection to pre-history and the spirit world.
– Erna Cooper