On Peter Covino's 'The Right Place to Jump'

I think the kind of poems Peter Covino writes more often than any other are good poems. This was the case inand it is again in.
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stack of old books
stack of old books

It's an encouraging thing that one of the country's finest small presses, New Issues, has published Peter Covino's second book of poems, The Right Place to Jump. The collection, which will be in stores on October 1st, is a boundaryless performance by Covino, influenced as much by conventional and popular poetics as it is by experimentation. There are poems that seem to place him, to my mind, in the upper stratosphere of our small poetry world and others that outpace me (usually because of their experimentation); but for all its variety and chaos of style, what's special about The Right Place to Jump is that it feels whole, exactly the book it needs to be.

In hindsight, Peter Covino's first full-length collection, 2005's Cut Off the Ears of Winter, was a pretty remarkable debut. Many of the poems addressed an abusive and oppressive father figure, never far from any poem and always threatening to appear. Fathers usually don't fare too well in poetry collections, but these poems were, and continue to be, unusual in their grace and candor -- a book also of considerable stylistic diversity, Cut Off the Ears of Winter was centered and powered by its subject. Here's a short poem, "The Rising," which begins the second part of the book. It is typical in its familial portrait, but also in its chilling clarity:

The Rising

he washes up,

covered in seaweed.
And mother

wraps herself in
the shower curtain.

I'm in bed
with my sister,
comforting her.

Thankfully, for Peter Covino above all, the father figure that held hostage the family of Cut Off the Ears of Winter is largely absent from the poems of The Right Place to Jump. It is, I am happy to report, a book very much about getting on with life and living, with and without. There are many subjects and many themes, and there are some shocking moments, too, but the shock here is of a different sort -- as in "Visit to San Francisco," where the speaker can't pull himself away from a strip club he's visited on two consecutive nights. The poem closes: "But I seem to have lost my underwear, / my car keys, can't remember the ride back / to the hotel, the alarm, the flight home." Poets usually can't remember the way back from the daffodils, so the conundrum of "Visit to San Francisco" and other poems like it, is fresh and even defining. Especially for a poet writing lines as formal and perfected as these, occurring earlier in the poem: "This morning the bells of St. Francis / compete with the caws of gulls / and the rumble and whistle of traffic."

While those lines are absolutely vivid, very few of the new poems are as immediate as those in Cut Off the Ears of Winter. Here's an example of a short poem from The Right Place to Jump, "Heroin" -


Last night the snow filled up your arms
tracks of snow from East 2nd Street &
I couldn't dig out your Porsche replace
the curtains in ample free time
paint the changes of the window in the light
little of nothing to hold on to
how the skin peels away the bugs
come apart with mayonnaise & honey

"Heroin" is certainly as delicate a poem as "The Rising," but the syntax has become more difficult to parse and the images, especially the closing image ("the bugs / come apart with mayonnaise & honey"), are a far but confident cry from the images in "The Rising" and its closing image ("I'm in bed / with my sister, / comforting her"). In such a comparison, it might be too easy to proclaim that Covino's poetry has grown more abstract or individuated since Cut Off the Ears of Winter; nevertheless, proclaiming such a thing would probably be on track. However much I find myself missing the immediacy of the earlier poems, there might have been a ceiling to their potential and perhaps Covino sensed it, choosing, with The Right Place to Jump, to risk certainty in pursuit of greater artistic possibilities.

Along these lines, Covino's poetry has grown significantly more varied. There are qualities characteristic of his work throughout -- his sense of line, his sense of humor, his penchant for good adjectives and his enduring battle to live a fulfilled life against considerable odds. Whatever their "brand," the poems in both Cut Off the Ears of Winter and The Right Place to Jump are often sustained by these things and worth reading because of them. But it's also true that Covino's work does not have what you might call a trademark style and this is hammered home in the new collection -- compare these two passages from The Right Place to Jump to get a sense of what I mean:

Until that day after minor surgery, he believed
most of Wyoming was a factory specializing
in night-lights and bars of soap decorated with
images of bucking broncos or upright prairie dogs.

-from "Millennial Wyoming in Unpopular Imagination, with Codeine"

Que quality
Of colander (sieving negativity)

Two minutes for
Angel-haired Liszt

-from "Serendi(pity)"

In one poem Covino can sound like a colloquial contemporary poet and in another he can sound every bit the irreverent linguist. This back and forth between style and school is probably the most pronounced aspect of The Right Place to Jump; without a binding subject, it's a book that finds Covino looking to new heights and at his most adventurous aesthetically. On an experiential level, the result can be both interesting and disorientating. (Interesting, because it's rare to find a poet so willing to experiment and disorientating because it's difficult to get comfortable in the collection.) But perhaps the more important feeling I have about the whole lot -- and this is what I meant by those last words of the introduction -- is that every poem seems to belong. You can easily imagine Covino writing all of them, despite their disparate qualities, because they are all influenced by the poet's commitment to invention, whatever the kind. Taken together, the new poems successfully form a larger staging of a poet's voice, as it fluctuates and builds, crescendos and falls -- suggesting along the way that what Covino has is not so much a style problem but a problem with being allowed only one style to develop and nurture.

On a qualitative level, the strongest individual efforts, it turns out, are the poems that arrive at a middle ground between the "bucking broncos"-Covino and the "Que quality / Of colander"-Covino -- "The River," "66 Trees," "Visit to San Francisco," "Heroin," "Harvest," and "Disappearance and Modulation" are several of the standouts. The most experimental poems of The Right Place to Jump are the toughest for me to enjoy, while these "middle ground" poems resonate with the lessons of Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, Edward Hirsch (in an odd sort of way) and Reginald Shepherd. They are ambitious but not faulty, following Shepherd when he wrote, despite the allure of the "new," "I would rather write a good poem than a new poem."

I think the kind of poems Peter Covino writes more often than any other are good poems. This was the case in Cut Off the Ears of Winter and it is again in The Right Place to Jump. Although The Right Place to Jump goes in many more directions than its predecessor, Covino remains passionate about writing good poems. Of course, you'd like to write good poems that are also new poems -- and that's exactly what Covino has set out to do with The Right Place to Jump.

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