Hard to Love
by M. Scott Douglass
Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 96 pp., $15 paperback
M. Scott Douglass is the owner/operator/editor of the literary journal Main Street Rag and the press, Main Street Rag Publishing Company. He oversees contests that award publication to poetry chapbooks, full-length poetry collections, novellas, and anthologies of short stories. We can forgive his publishing his own collection for a couple of reasons: one is that it has been seven years since his previous book and the other is that there are some fine poems here, worthy of a new publication.
Hard to Love presents its poems in five sections. The first two, Rumor Has It and Been There, are related. They give us narrative poems with a speaker much like Douglass in his western Pennsylvania baby boomer upbringing, recalling events of childhood and adolescence as well as a couple of poems that speculate about previous generations. My favorite of these is “The Day Hell’s Angels Rode Through Town.” The poem evokes the middle class parental worry of Hell’s Angels as an existential threat, as even store owners “warned of impending doom.” Of course, when the bikers appear, “sounding like a squadron / of B-52s” and the other kids run home, the speaker runs toward the roar:
They were all leather and chrome; dark shades,
sideburns, colorful bandanas; thick black boots
and worn blue jeans. The air was thick with oil,
grease, gasoline, exhaust. Cigarettes hung from
mustached lips, gas tanks and skin
bore flames and skeletons. They were
the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
The kid stares as the bikers parade past, until one of the biker women, clinging to her man, catches his eye and waves. A new world opens up for him: “That was when the mystery was revealed — / why they called them Angels — and I knew / there was a place for me in heaven.” Indeed, this experience proved to be long-lasting; the book’s cover photo shows Douglass in silhouette on a motorcycle. There are poems in this section that would have benefitted from some cuts, some that are at least a stanza too long, but this isn’t one of them.
Douglass wears his politics on his sleeve, as anyone who reads MSR or gets his monthly e-newsletter knows. The poems in Priceless, the third section, are overtly political. There isn’t a subtle moment in them. Douglass skewers politicians and the capitalist system, especially CEOs and television commercials, as Sprint, Under Armor, AFLAC, and Capital One, among others, are described in ways that make their shallow appeals to consumerism apparent. Perhaps the best of these is “Opportunists,” which extends the “vulture capitalism” metaphor through a description of the ongoing foreclosure crisis. If you lean to the left politically, you will enjoy the pointed humor of these poems.
Section IV, Figments, consists of observational poems, mostly humorous poems that do something we all do from time to time, which is to see someone in public who stands out for some reason and we invent their lives in our imagination. Of course, we have to be wary of our stereotyping, and Douglass navigates this minefield pretty successfully in “The Man With the Big Head (I),” which has the charm of self-deprecation and in “The Performance of His Life,” a portrait of a “spoken word” poet. He is less successful in “Crawl Night,” a catalog of character types at a gallery opening. Other humorous poems are “Chicks Will Be Ready for Pick Up on Monday,” which reflects on how a typo can ruin your life, and “The Lottery Prayer,” which outlines everyone’s fantasies about all the good we would do, if only our numbers would be lucky ones.
The final section, Road Work, consists of poems generated by that intersection most of us encounter in our commutes every day, the crossroad of Waiting and Going. Traffic lights, roadkill, and people in other vehicles provide subject matter for these poems: “Tell me why you look at me / through saucer-shaped sunglasses / to see if I am looking at you.” This question from “Thirsty” can be turned on the speaker as well. We wonder about those around us; they wonder about us. The strongest of these poems is the last one in the book, “Moving On.” The speaker, who rides a motorcycle, is stuck at a stoplight and reflects on his impatience. It ends with a stanza that is part defiance and part elegy:
Finally the light changes.
A twist of the wrist
and I am thunder.
I am wind. I
Hard to Love is an enjoyable, successful collection, full of poems that speak clearly of the vagaries of daily life in the 21st Century as well as the mists of memory. I recommend it.