Gival Press, an established independent publisher with an interest in LGBTQ literature, has just released award-winning poet Jeff Walt‘s new full-length collection, Leave Smoke. Born into a rural Pennsylvania community of coal miners and bricklayers, Jeff is an editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual, with literary honors that include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a musical setting of his poems in concert at Carnegie Hall. Leave Smoke relentlessly probes the scars and longings of a life between two worlds, where midlife resembles Dante’s dark wood in the middle of the journey, and the family legacy of addiction and work-weariness pursues the narrator into his liberated middle-class gay life. Having too many choices is almost as bad as having too few, when one hasn’t had role models for choosing wisely. In this collection, moments of hope and tenderness–a brother’s latest stab at sobriety, breathing lessons with a Zen-like poetry instructor–are rare and shine like diamonds in coal.
Jeff has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below. It takes a talented poet to come up with a new metaphor for stars, let alone two as surprising and piercing as these.
Stars from My Bed
On the ceiling glow-
in-the-dark & behind my eyes
gnarling sparks. No, no wishes.
These stars are sharp
like a tin can lid’s slit throat.
They write blues songs
but not about me. I love you
where I am
mostly. I give the stars juicy details.
Sometimes just to piss me off
they go on and on
with stupid jokes about my old
jittery friends looking to score dime bags
while their constant need scuffed
down the once
to a mottled circle
round my coffee table.
The needle made us
happy. The stars spread
Sundays in the living room, before Disney
and our baths, he made our mother vanish
right before our eyes. His long, black cape shiny
as water pouring through the hands of summer.
I swaddled my sister
tight in my eight-year-old arms that trembled
with frightened joy. We held our breath and bit
our nails as he sawed her in half, pulled nickels
from her ears, instructed her to bark
with a quick snap of his fingers. Then
they left us for the Windmill Tavern. Alone together,
we sang and danced in her pink pumps.
Draped in his silky cape, we saved lives and killed
off all the villains using the gagdets
that possessed the glittery magic
until the dark, late hours–our games behind us–
when the shadows became spirits our magic sprouted:
falling ice the footsteps of men
surrounding the house; winter’s spiraling whine
moaned up from the gut of the furnace.
When he asked if he could be my father,
I said, yes, wanting whatever that meant. We fled to closets
when they fought, afraid a clap of his hands
might reduce us to dust. The day he packed his bag
of magic, she begged him to stay. I hid
his wand in my sock–because,
in the dark, on his lap, he had pulled me tight, whispered
that he had the power to turn rocks into chocolate,
little boys into goats.
The black stick held all his tricks.