On Hours By Marc Rahe
Rescue Press, 2015; 64 pp
Reviewed by Paul French
Poet Richard Greenfield once smithed a phrase that’s stuck in my toolbelt. He’d been reading poems whose subjects were domestic, everyday, and yet pointedly tinged by tones of misery. These poems’ speakers did not wail, but mumbled, and the culprits behind their grief were never fingered. Why exactly the speaker was sad was left unsaid. You were just supposed to sense that he was, and that somehow this subterranean gray was at the core of the poem’s raison.
Any scene from TV’s Louie might serve as an analogue for how this works. A man goes into a store and buys a candy bar, and that’s all that happens. Meanwhile though, a plaintive jazz trumpet whines over the routine. And all of the colors of the store’s aisles are muted to a Saving Private Ryan pigment of dull smoke. Buying a candy bar begins to come off as tragic. The average man’s average action, etched in suffering, is consequently, and newly, profound.
“General abstract malaise” (GAM) is how Greenfield dubbed this atmosphere. And it abounds in Marc Rahe’s 2015 On Hours, whose essayistic title (several poems share this “On...” construction) adumbrates the jaded, idle grief of the book’s speaker. If this book were a room, it’d be the lobby of a hospital where everyone gets bad news.
Often, GAM works in the book’s favor. Poems like “Man at a Baseball Game, Alone” and “On Distraction” are fraught with a sense of desperation and longing that I can sympathize with as a reader. And the dry, easily readable language of this collection creates an earnest dynamic of simple words and difficult feelings, a valuable dichotomy for any poet (reminiscent of Charles Simic at times, although I think Rahe’s work runs a greater risk of seeming shallow).
This collection does have its share of shortcomings. Rahe’s talent, which seems to lie in building atmosphere, is unaccessible in shorter poems like “Frog Pond” and “Confines,” pieces that I was unfortunately able to read with total cynicism as toss-off filler, even if this wasn’t the case (and I’m sure it wasn’t). What’s more, the GAM of many of the poems didn’t pack enough punch for me. I kept hoping for more of the work of poems like “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars,” which is a refreshing breath outside of the speaker’s constantly depressed space. In “The Sun...” we are treated with a new perspective, with playfulness, aesthetic uniqueness. Unlike in many of On Hours less successful work, we’re trying to aesthetically engage a problem, and not just allude to the vague existence of one.