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
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.