Review: The Red Buddha and Emergency Room Wrestling


Reviews by Jim Feast


It’s peculiar to say that the two poets under review here (Maia Penfold with The Red Buddha and The Dirty Poet with Emergency Room Wrestling) represent an alternative tradition. And even more peculiar to say this is the most demanding tradition of any, the tradition whereby the authors put in simple, straightforward language their feelings and observations.

You see, there’s a dirty secret behind all experimental poetry, from Language to Flarf to Objectivism, you can practice it quite successfully (even become famous for so practicing) without any ability to write.

What do I mean “to write”? I mean to illuminate something about our world in way that unsentimentally touches the reader.

I’m not saying experimental writers don’t do that – a host of them do – but they don’t have to. It’s not a prerequisite.

But to write in the vein of a Bukowski, Danny Shot, Eliot Katz, John Bennet, Carol Wierzbicki, Steve Dalachinsky, Bonny Finberg or the authors under review, you have to speak from your heart and have something new to say, which demands both a long apprenticeship and a high degree of honesty.

Maia Penfold qualifies as someone who can write, given these criteria. She is equally adept at telling observations about everyday life, acute looks at interpersonal dynamics (such as the war that can go on in a marriage) and stinging reminiscences of growing up in Saskatchewan during the depression.

On this last score, she talks of a family whom the newspapers label as “poor but clean.” This last trait didn’t help much.

there was blood everywhere
in their house after the father
axed the children and the wife
he couldn’t feed because he lost
his job and couldn’t get a new

What Penfold remembers most vividly about this incident from her childhood is not the violence but the hypocrisy of the media, which kept harping on the family’s cleanliness.

and how little it mattered
if we were clean if we
were good if we worked
how little it mattered

… in the winds of economic
war and folly
that caught us up and
smashed us up against the
walls of the small houses
 in which we tried to live
our lives

Writers like Penfold – if this is not a self contradiction – appear to be hardened free spirits. They have experienced the sweet and sour of life, but nothing can keep down their clear-sighted elan. So, even in recording her feelings after a partner left her, for example, she can only talk of the opening he brought into her life, not the closing of this chapter.

that time you left
 for the last time as you closed the door
without looking back
the walls fell down and the roof
since then I’ve lived with the leaves  ..
my table and chairs there
out on the lawn
the walls are down for good

This same attitude of honesty and zest in grim-as-death situations (that’s meant literally) is found in The Dirty Poet, who, as his book title makes clear, crafts poems drawn from his experience of working as a technician in a hospital’s emergency ward.

Here’s a specimen of his blacker-than-black humor.

the doctor knocked out the old lady’s tooth
during a difficult intubation
gave a yank when he should have finessed
they put the tooth in a specimen bag
and inserted it in the chart
we’re going to need bigger charts
if they have to hold body parts

However, and I’m being serious here, the circumstances he describes are not usually so lighthearted. Many poems are about a death. In one, he tells of trying to insert a tube in a patient, but the patient keeps spitting up, “I stick a suction catheter up his nose // triggering a vast bubble of yellow bile out of his mouth.” As the narrator repeatedly tries and fails to insert the tube – the patient’s life depends on this – he is surrounded by family hangers on: “the wife hugs his tattooed neck // his mother on his right shoulder.”  He finally gets the tube in as the patient expires, prompting the reflection: “he couldn’t have gone quietly // it had to be this way.”

I think I’ve said enough for you to see that these two poets extraordinaire make great additions to the tradition, a way of writing in which you speak your mind till it hurts.