I am familiar with David Drager's poetry mainly through his reading. Poetry is both a written and spoken/sung art form, after all, and Drager has always put emphasis on the sheer "performance" of his verse, sometimes in an almost rap form, clearly influenced by African–American culture, sometimes as dramatic soliloquy, sometimes as bop-jazz rhythms reminiscent of the Beats. Here's a poem from All That Beauty Brings that illustrates the point.
Why I Go to Open Mics
The Word captured in the word
In the Word's spoken music
In the spirit rising before us
In the veils of the Other lifting
In our own trembling hearts
Note the lack of punctuation. You can't hear a period or comma, after all.
Indeed, in his Introduction, which is really a manifesto of sorts, Drager observes:
If this were a songbook, would you browse the notes, comment on chord progressions and count the number of sharps and flats? Or would you hum the melody, tap out the rhythm and test the lyric with the voice n song? Poetry is not writing, it is reciting inviting the music of the spoken word.
Regarding punctuation, Drager goes on to say,
My poetry thrives on pauses, the spaces between that juxtapose and transform. I use line breaks, as well as extra spaces, tabs and dashes within lines to indicate pauses long and short.
In other words, he uses space, both temporal and on the page, to achieve the effect of a comma or period, in a more dramatic way — something you can see as well as hear.
Thematically, the poems in All That Beauty Brings are all over the place, as might be expected from a collection that includes work spanning thirty–six years (1978 — 2014), but some preoccupations are clear, and certain stylistic devices recur. A Jewish poet, Drager does not write so much about Judaic themes — "Matzoh Balls" and "Heroine of Chanukah," "Christ Killer" and "Ghetto Fire" are notable Jewish-related titles — but a Jeremiah–like voice is familiar across the years in many of these poems, when he decries injustices, the inhumanity of man, implicitly exhorts the reader, the listener, to moral action. "Say What" (FBI, CIA conspiracies), "Peekskill, a Friendly Town" (racism, anti–Semitism) "Letter from the Future" (homophobia), "Sexing DWH" (DWH stands for Deep Water Horizon, the 2010 Gulf oil spill), and "Thud" (exploited women, third-world workers) are examples from a section entitled "Child of a Nuclear Nation."
Similarly, Drager is concerned with the plight of African-Americans and celebrates black culture. "Malcolm," "She Is Sojourner," "Slangston," "Blood Dazzler & Octoroon Balls" reflect this theme, and even "Heroine of Chanukah" employs the rhythm and patois of urban black culture:
You be heading in the wrong direction
You be headed to a bloody sack
Once you get that bitch on your back
Repetition is another device Drager frequently uses. It has an incantatory effect, like a call and response. Take these verses from "She Is Sojourner":
You who I know from public hugs
You who I know from wide smile
You who I know from poesy fierce
Why does it seem that I know you a while
Your words the slap of prophets past
Your words the coming spring
Your words the sting of betrayal's lash
Your words your spirits ring
Drager is fond of this technique and uses it effectively in many of these poems. "For Abigail," "Sing Along" (a poem dedicated to Pete Seeger), "Cold, "Waves," "For Deborah," "Blood Dazzler & Octoroon Balls," "Black Swan," "Peekskill, a Friendly Town" and a number of other poems employ this device.
Many of these techniques are those of an orator, and indeed, as we noted at the start, Drager emphasizes the spoken poetic word over the written. In this, it is therefore not surprising that his poems often sound like prayers. One entire section, in fact, is entitled in the form of a prayer, "May the Ink Never Dry." "A Poet's Prayer" from the "Heavy Petal Foot" section reads:
Though I grasp at only light
Illuminated may my hand be.
Though I shout into the night
Burnished by darkness be my voice.
Though I write beyond my ken
Graced by the unfathomable be my pen.
Though a serious poet, Drager is not without flashes of humor, as in his poem, "Lois Lane’s Regret." And some of his poems are just plain "poetic," playfully using metaphor to convey a thought. Take the poem, "Years are kitchen mice":
Years are kitchen mice
Scurrying between cupboards at night
Too tired to move
We hear them passing
Even if we were to stir
They’d be gone before the light.
Let's put out some cheese, my love
Perhaps they’ll stay awhile.
Proceeds from the sale of Drager's book will all go to Litmore, a center for the literary arts in Baltimore that survives by the skin of its teeth and thrives on the kindness of strangers.