When poet Charles Bukowski, whom Time called a “laureate of American lowlife,” died, in 1994, fans filled the day by drinking to their literary hero. And the prolific writer of collections like Love Is a Dog From Hell still holds sway over many with his gritty, confessional style that never pulls punches. One longtime acolyte is Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Cvetic.
In his new collection, the self-published Beware of the Dog, Cvetic brandishes an over-the-top sense of honesty that dovetails with his speaker’s sometimes big-hearted yet extremely forthright personality. Cvetic, a retired Allegheny County detective and co-organizer (with Joan Bauer) of the esteemed Hemingway’s Poetry Series, is perhaps better known for teaching boxing to at-risk kids. It’s those boxing poems that stand out in an uneven collection that’s sure to thrill devotees of hard-boiled yet often comic realism in poetry that cuts across the academic grain.
In “Amonti Is Told The Secret, But He Just Forgot,” readers meet a boy, described as “No bigger than a minute / All wide-eyed sunshine.” Cvetic’s speaker reminisces about a trip to an Indianapolis boxing tournament hosted by the late Muhammad Ali. The Pittsburgh team presents “The Greatest” with a bicycle, and when given the duty, Amonti, the youngest, “started to cry. / Ali picked Amonti up / And held him close to his chest … / Whispered in his ear … / back on the canvas, / I swear Amonti floated.” It’s a pleasant moment that lingers until the poem ends as a cautionary tale.
As a cop, Vietnam vet and son of a mother whom he recalls “reading poetry / And drinking Iron City Beer from a quart bottle,” Cvetic comes by his cynicism honestly. However, he’s at his best when he allows the image to speak for itself, as in “Becoming a Man,” where he recounts the boredom of guard duty overlooking a Buddhist temple and rice paddy where a young woman labors. He describes it as “[a]lmost like a postcard / except for the barbwire … / I would watch the girl for hours … / Sometimes during the day / She would pull down her black silk pants / And pee right into the green water. / It was beautiful.” While tender scenes are few, and titles like “Cunty Things” and “Fabs Shits His Pants” push the envelope of taste, Beware of the Dog is less shaggy than it might first seem.