There's one argument of poetry that never resolves for me: the one that says either that a poem "should be" accessible, or "should be" complex -- or at least, address complex matters. I cut my poetry teeth on T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams in the same year, the same months, and both bodies of work suited me at the time.
Increasingly often now, I find I need to read a new collection of poems several times, well spaced apart. Part of this is for the sake of adapting to forms or approaches that startle me, until I find the words digging into my soul. And part of it, I suspect, is that as I age, I protect my soul more successfully -- so it takes time for a fresh blade to reach the blood.
Now that I've read ALPHA ZULU three times, I like it enough to know I'll be reading it at least three more times. Don't ask me to explain, but when I first saw the collection title, I thought it was going to be "about" roots in Africa. As far as I can tell, it's not ... but Alpha and Zulu are the beginning and ending characters of the military and police verbal symbols to express the alphabet as certainly as possible in confused communication situations. And that is what a decent poem often does: takes us into confusion and calmly lays out the bones, the lines, the certainties.
The book opens with the title poem and an unforgettable first line: "I know more people dead than alive, / my insomniac answer to self-addressed prayers // is that in the small hours even God drinks alone." In a deft sweep of eleven couplets, Lilley captures life, loss, love, and a matter-of-fact acceptance of hope.
Lilley's a veteran of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force (and lives the blues of DC and Chicago, and roots himself at the edge of North Carolina's Great Dismal Swamp). The poems that paint moments from the military strike deeply. I like especially "Submarine Patrol: Mid-Watch Entry, 01 Jan":
... I'm on Zulu time, a patrol the next two months
trying not to remember the trace of perfume
in our bed, the way you're there when you've gone
and I wake in the sun-touched room.
An old tradition, the New Year mid-watch entry
must be the pulse of the crew. So I scan
the collective soul of this steel ship
and one hundred fifty squids.
... A new cycle
starts tonight, so I'll take no chances,
anger no gods, and I'll try
not to think of you too long.
Handled especially cleanly are the threads of addiction, recovery, and belief -- or as the expression goes in the 12-Step rooms, "I came, I came to, and I came to believe." When GOD shows up in "Ranter on the Corner of Babylon and Manhattan" it's in an all-too-real rant of a brain going it solo, and again the meticulous pruning of this poet means that each phrase comes through intensely, like "traditions and bushels of burning chads look how they run amuck in front of God's annoyed hands" or "I got history on a deadline I got hell fear on ice."
Lilley captures the best of the poetic sequence in his "Charm City Tarot" and "Serial," where blades and words slide in parallel between the ribs. I treasure the opening segment of "Serial," titled "1. Practitioner of the Faith":
I am perilous, baby.
Every day I shave
I say that to myself.
Everything is cut to the stone
of purity, anything else
just gets cut.
In my third time through, I got to thinking of the prose poems in here -- the rants -- as each being a separate voice, one of the thinking reeds bundled inside Lilley. Or inside me.
And that, I think, may be the ultimate compliment to this collection: that the more I thought I could see Lilley in what he wrote here, the more I thought I was seeing something of myself.