Cathy Porter writes gritty verse about betrayal and motel room lust, violence, death, discarded paper plates, unanswered phone calls, abandoned factories and visits to cemeteries, drunks and sad jukebox songs. In a word, noir. So it's no wonder her chapbook, Exit Songs, takes on the sad, often tragic deaths of musicians, so many of them young deaths, not a few of them lonely, suicidal, or ODs. Each of the twenty–five poems in Exit Songs, elegies all, addresses the death of a different artist, all but three titled simply by the person's first name ("Alex Chilton" "Mojo Risin'," and "Mama Cass" are the exceptions — "Stevie Ray" too if you don't count that as one name) — and we know always who each one is even before we read the poem.
The collection starts out appropriately with "Robert," an elegy to Robert Johnson who, as Porter writes, "started it all." The legend that he sold his soul to the Devil for his guitar–playing prowess, his death at twenty–seven ("Your final chord — on all fours — / howling like a dog..."), possibly poisoned by a jealous husband; his officially unknown gravesite, three different markers erected around Greenwood, Mississippi.
As with many later rock–and–roll stars, Johnson died so young — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse are eulogized in Exit Songs as well. Not to mention Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, killed in an airplane crash, or Ronnie Van Zant and Stevie Ray Vaughan, in other aircraft accidents. There are the suicides — Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley (maybe), the drug overdoses — Jimi, Janis, Amy, Elvis, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson. All spawn, improbably, from Johnson, as in some crazy genealogy, who begat whom. Porter addresses each of her poems to the dead, speaking to "you" each time.
Many of the poems conclude with sly references to songs or lines — "greatest hits," as it were — some more successfully than others. Freddie Mercury, who died from AIDS:
"The others," she writes,
carry on, but these songs were meant to be sung
by you, and you alone; a voice fit for a king,
or most certainly, a queen.
Others begin with haunting lines, such as the elegy to James Brown ("James") — "The flame was ready at birth — and you / were chosen for the spark...." Or the poem for Kurt Cobain:
"I hate you mom, I hate you dad,"
on the bedroom wall should have been
clue one, but like most clues
in plain sight, it became invisible.
Billie Holiday's turbulent life and sad death, John Lennon's murder, Lou Reed's life ended too soon — check, check and check. Missing are Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, and a host of others, dead after these poems were collected. There will surely be a second volume, then, from this poet who is sensitive to life's beauty and its tragedy.