Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Crows in the Jukebox - Mike James (Bottom Dog Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Crows in the Jukebox.  Mike James.  Harmony Series.  Bottom Dog Press.  Huron, Ohio.  2017.

Nominated for a Paterson Poetry Prize

Family can be a sharp kick in the ass at the best of times and Mike James knows it.  Crows in the Jukebox isn't simply a great title and a great cover, there's a damned fine book between the covers.  Crows in the Jukebox (Today's book of poetry likes saying that: Crows in the Jukebox.), runs through the charismatic drama of a suspect childhood with parents run amok.  Today's book of poetry has heard this sad story before but we've never encountered the Mike James methodology.

James brings a lightness to these poems and it must be a ventriloquist trick because you never see his lips move.  Amid a dark terrain of justifiable disdain James is able to introduce music, wit before a dusting of just the right amount of pathos.  Somehow Mike James forgives everyone in these poems, although he never says that, he understands that some failures are built on the foundation of the best intentions.

Still Life, with Smudges

after tasting
one long
fresh from
the yellow sun
batter of
a cake
or ladling
up the 
winter taste
of venison
my grandmother
might pause
to say

close enough
is enough

then add
two seconds

like that
little boy
who won't
get dirty
who won't
play rough


Crows in the Jukebox is such a damned good title that Today's book of poetry knew we'd like these poems, just didn't have any idea how much.  James keeps it short but these short poems punch heavy.

It's rare to encounter poems that have no artifice whatsoever.  James write with confidence, knowing that if he tells the truth the poems will work.  Crows in the Jukebox relies on memory, James uses his memory to trigger ours.  One of the reasons these poems read so right is that they are familiars.  We've felt that, suffered this, endured, we understand.  Mike James makes it clear that our feelings were right all along.

Brando in Tahiti

let's say it's late
past midnight

beach nearly empty
except for stray,
and brando
in beach towel,

he tends a fire
so close to
the tide
logs sizzle
with mist

now and then
a spark floats
towards sky

stars so
even the
smallest hand
could block
a dozen
from view

every few minutes
seems as large
as the island,
his great yell
louder than
a bullhorn)
           throws pages
into the fire
from a stack
of scripts
beside him

the fire grows
brighter as
the stack grows

brando drinks
from a wine jug
pacino and laughs
laughs, laughs


The morning read here at Today's book of poetry was sensational.  Milo, our head tech, and Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, came through the door this morning holding hands and with big, big smiles.  It seems they are working on a poetry project of their own.  Their smiles were infectious in the best way.

Crows in the Jukebox reads relentless, poem after poem, focused and short/sharp.  These poems made for an electric read and when we were done the staff wanted more.  

Milo has been charged with finding the other ten poetry titles James has out there in the vast blue libraries of the saints.  Today's book of poetry has all the time in the world to read poetry that rings hard and true and never stops being entertaining to the Poetry Gods who insist on music.  The Gods are used to all sorts of pain, hell, they often cause it for their own amusement -- but above all, the Poetry Gods want new amusement.  Mike James Crows in the Jukebox is a steady stream.

The Crows

i love those damned birds
for what they aren't

lovely, dainty

also, for what
they are

scrappy, clever
unafraid of stick men

the crow knows his
only world

his knowledge

he carries a spine
of darkness

his home, some place
i never see


Today's book of poetry loves crows too.  

This morning we saw sunshine in Ottawa, good books in the mail and a flat-out burner for the blog.  Crows in the Jukebox is forged with strong, smart and tender alloys -- when Mike James slams it all down on the poetry anvil we get to enjoy the beautiful sparks.

And simply because we liked Crows in the Jukebox so much -- a fourth poem.  It's not quite a list poem but we are going to add it to ours.

Hitchhiker Proverbs

elsewhere is the oldest place


when you walk
even as you look at your feet
remember the sky


a bed is not so comfortable
if you like the smell of a ditch


the bear eats where
he wants


how dirty the mirror
it sees both sides


when you tell yourself
a secret
there's an echo


Image result for mike james poet photo

Mike James

Mike James is the author of eleven poetry collections. His most recent books include: Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog, 2017), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle, 2017), and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag, 2016.) His work has appeared in over 100 magazines throughout the country in such places as Tar River Poetry, Soundings East, and Laurel Review. He has also been active as an editor for The Kentucky Review, Autumn House Press, and his own Yellow Pepper Press. After years spent in South Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, he now makes his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with his large family and a large assortment of cats.

In his wonderful new collection, Crows in the Jukebox, Mike James explores among many topics, his hardscrabble patriarchy, marriage and family relationships, and the clarity and persistence of nature. As in his other work, he often surprises the reader with jarring quips and closures as in "Talking with Allen Ginsberg, in a Dream:" "I can fit you in my shirt pocket," or the remarkable metaphor for the artistic creative process, "Swimming in the Rain:" "when she swims she's always alone/no one who watches is with her." This volume establishes James as a poet of the first rank, one who swims alone.
     ~Tim Peeler, author of L2: A Poetry Novel

I was hooked on Mike James' new collection of poetry from the title onward. Crows in the Jukebox is as beautiful as its title. James explores his youth and confronts his memories of his father in powerful poems. His writing is precise. Not a word is wasted. James writes,"the crow waits for darkness / and the music it brings." This book brings both darkness and music, as well as beauty and light.
     ~Daniel Crocker, author of Shit House Rat

Mike James
reading "Reply to John Dorsey..."
Video: Kentucky Review



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