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Summer 2016 - Book Review by Charles Rammelkamp
"Last Man Standing"

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing
by Alan Catlin
Lummox Press, 2015
$15.00, 162 pages
ISBN: 978-1929878536

As Jennifer Lagier notes in her back cover endorsement of Alan Catlin's new collection of poems, Last Man Standing, his poetry "narrates stories from the lost and damned, provides a tour of everyday underworlds after dark, introduces the reader to the damaged and dysfunctional." These poems make Charles Bukowski seem like a genteel wine–sipper at a cocktail party, every one of them seemingly bleaker than the one that came before it. And that very first poem? "It's Too Late":

     To relive four years of being drunk
     To take back all the things I must have said
     And all that I did that cannot be undone

Indeed, the last man standing in the title poem that concludes this collection is weaving on his feet after a barroom brawl sipping his

     bottomless pint, and cut glass shots
     through a short straw, dulled pains slowly
     ebbing into an alcoholic daze.

Between the first and the last poems, Catlin paints a vivid picture of hopelessness, lives gone to hell. The voice that paints these portraits is shrewd, sizing up characters the way an experienced bartender who's seen it all might pitilessly regard the feeble customer, con artist, punk, bully, whore, in front of him. Take the poem, "Performance Artist."

     Maybe she thought that if
     she lived in the same hotel
     famous rock stars killed
     each other in, or, if she played
     all the backrooms with every
     act that came through town,
     maybe one of them would ask
     her on stage for something
     more than a cameo appearance
     as a stoned white chick, apparition,
     adept in all the black arts of love,
     paying her way through life as
     a peep performer, a sliding
     door away from never being heard
     of again.

He sees this person as a joke, though without scorn: he does not strip this person of her dignity, but neither does he hold out that faint hope of hitting the big time; it just ain't gonna happen.

"Performance Artist" comes from the second section of the book, "People," and indeed in this section the voice is weary, skeptical, jaded, quickly assessing the others like beasts in the jungle, whether they are "The ones selling drugs / for an older brother doing / time and the muscle they employ;" ("Children in the schoolyard, what horrors they endure") or "Punkette dressed in tin foil / and celluloid, mini–skirt, ephemeral / as an aura made hazy by Ecstasy" ("Even her pubic hair looked aggressive"), or the guy who is "reinventing himself / as a kind of family guy after / a career as woman chaser, / just a gigolo, part time life / guard singing the Miami blues" ("New Hope for the Dead"). Or "Edgar Allan Nobody," that person we have all known (or been) who is the misunderstood, exceptional, creative individual in his/her own mind, dissolute as hell because that goes with the territory, marked as "the genius he was meant to be instead / of the drunk he would become." Cynical? Hell yeah. But who is going to doubt it? Who is even going to weep?

Though they take place in Albany and other upstate New York locales — Saratoga, Schenectady , peace–love–Woodstock — the scenes and people in these poems seem like they could be anywhere in America. The third section, "Bambi Does Albany," tells more tales of bleak lives, but I've seen that "White Boy" in Baltimore and Boston, alive and well in downstate Illinois:

     There was a quality of high on life
     about him, but not of the Jesus Loves
     You variety, though he had been exposed
     to more of his share of that in his
     various 12 Step rehabs, but more of
     a "just stopped in to see what my condition
     was in" frame of mind. Flush with permanent
     disability, SSI checks, he'd make the circuit
     once a month, continuing his unofficial quest
     to be thrown out of more bars than any
     other rummy in the city....

Or take the "Lady Bowlers in the Lounge" from the final section,

               their names sewn on their
     right breast pockets: Marge, Shirley,
     Sandi, Delores, Roxanne —
     Too tight, above the knee dark skirts
     Butterflies tattooed on their ankles or on
     the back of their sun burnt necks, forty
     pounds overweight, ordering Black Velvet
     Presbyterians, sipping as if they were sleek
     women, lounging in evening gowns, fondling
     pearls before the swine enter their lives...

You've met or seen these people, too, haven't you?

Catlin also gives us Hemingway and Henry Miller in this same life of drinking and writing. If the losers and frauds don't exactly swim up out of their bleak anonymity, at least Catlin blows some brief recognition their way, and if the judgment is harsh, unblinking, at least it's not the verdict of a moralist. As they say, it is what it is, and in Catlin's verse it sure is — it is and it is and it is.


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