Potent verse fills Michael S. Begnal's fourth collection | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Potent verse fills Michael S. Begnal's fourth collection

The poet ranges from Irish-American themes and empathy for caged animals to appreciations of protopunks the Stooges


Seeking to recreate the world in words, some poets spread their text purposefully across the page, with big horizontal or vertical stretches of white space. In his fourth collection, Future Blues (Salmon Poetry), Michael S. Begnal uses this technique more often than most. But it's a measure of Begnal's skill that all that white space never seems an affectation. Rather, it's just another way he immerses us in his potent, often challenging voice.

Begnal, 46, teaches at Duquesne University and was formerly editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazine The Burning Bush. And indeed Future Blues often explores Irish and Irish-American settings and concerns. "Waterworld" limns an Old World street scene and a millennium's arc of history in a handful of lines ("r e i n c a r n a t i o n back on the agenda"). The stunning "Dead Rabbits" captures in a page the immigrant experience from Potato Famine to third-generation Middle American dissolution. Four other poems are even in Gaelic (and defiantly go untranslated).

"Angles" — about Western European colonists planting "trimmed bushes regimented in rows" in new-settled lands — is built on a delightful bit of Joycean wordplay ("The Angles are coming"). And with "Application for the Provision of Catholic Beverages," Begnal, employing a barroom stoicism, offers a detailed yet concise allegory on the Church's defunction.

But there's lots more to Begnal. His verse can be pleasingly visceral ("the canal flows nearby /clogged with dead leaves of limitless autumns"), or delve into personal torment, as in "Shade," about the speaker's relationship with a man who "sick or dying pretends health / in a black turtleneck." Begnal includes an "Homage to Li Po," and indeed displays a special facility for Eastern-inflected poems simply depicting a physical scene in lucid detail — or even, as in "Homage to Allen Kirkpatrick," merely describing a series of old photos.

There's also strong political sensibility, with evocations of imprisonment, characterizations of poets as endangered visionaries ("Manifesto") and deep empathy with animals caged ("Thylacine") and threatened. "[T]omorrow I will kill the poachers," the speaker vows in "Primates." 

Other highlights include takes on pop-cultural touchstones. In "Bettie Page," Begnal goes a bit T.S. Eliot on pinup icon Bettie Page. And a series of poems on the Stooges includes a witty appreciation of their alternate-universe third album, complete with titles like "Fresh Rag" and "Big Time Bum."

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