by THOMAS DAVIS
Albert DeGenova is the Executive Director of Write On Door County, a writing center making a name for itself in the Midwest, led by a poet who has already done so.
DeGenova’s new book of poetry, Human Nature, poems of witness (Kelsay Books), illustrates why this latter fact is true.
The award-winning poet, publisher, teacher and author, whose work has appeared in numerous journals and international anthologies, made his reputation by publishing six books of poetry, and founding After Hours literary journal and After Hours Press in Chicago. Human Nature follows up on those accomplishments, integrating the feel of a jazz and blues club into stories and lines dancing with the power poetry at its best can deliver.
There are all kinds of poetic styles. Many readers dislike poetry juxtaposing intense images into abstract word paintings whose meanings must be dug out of confusing complexity. A lot of readers love nature poetry that creates images of places they love and messages that agree with their experiences in life.
DeGenova’s poems in Human Nature often tell a story. But the stories bring alive the dilemma of being a white poet and a jazz/blues musician imbued with feelings and rhythms of Black culture in an American society valuing white over Black values and sensibilities.
In “Kissing Blackface,” he tells how he was mesmerized as a 17-year-old with a girl “sexy the way Catholic school girls were sexy.” She didn’t come to the Halloween party dressed in a play-bunny costume, “She arrived a pillow-bellied Aunt Jemima, deep red lips and blackface.” The shame of what she’d done didn’t keep him from kissing her “black face” and dancing “again and again with that painted devil.”
Over and over, he confronts the white privilege he was born into as an Italian America. In prose postcards from various places, he confronts the surrealism of listening to “Dixieland with a gravelly Bohemian accent in the center of the square,” while Mozart is played on a close-by corner by street musicians.
Human Nature encompasses all of contemporary American experience. From “American Lost Soul”:
Guards x-ray my shoes at the airport. My shoes!
I watch Oswald’s murder.
I watch a plane fly into a building.
I watch wars like re-runs.
I watch my sister go blind.
I watch my son choke on a lollipop.
I watch intelligent people argue about wearing face masks.
I watch a man play golf not 24 hours after burying his wife.
I eat hummus slowly searching for bones with my tongue.
I watch the fire go out, the kindling is ash.
It also explores race culture and white privilege in a way that forces readers to confront their place in American society.
Great poetry can come in different forms and have different meanings. At its heart, always, is an effort central to DeGenova’s new book – an exploration of who we are as human beings so that we can reach for our better selves.
Thomas Davis, and his wife, Ethel Mortenson Davis, were selected by the Door County Board of Supervisors in 2023 to serve as Door County poet laureates, beginning April 1, 2023 for two years.Human Nature: poems of witness, by Albert DeGenova, was published in 2023 by Kelsay Books, American Forks, Utah.