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Book Review: Flashbulb Danger

Flashbulb Danger: Selected Poems 1988-2018. Jack Phillips Lowe. Middle Island Press, April 20, 2018, Trade Paperback, 224 pages. 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

Flashbulb Dangeris a collection of poems capturing the modern day miasma in clear accessible language. Author Jack Phillips Lowe provides a general sense of disdain with a low swell of humor. Whether you are a poetry aficionado or a total novice, the reader can engage with these quippy narratives, letting the deeper meaning of the poems resonate off the eloquently painted images. JPL’s work achieves the depth of poetry in an understandable language with accessibility to the work. It is quintessentially American—invasive and snarky.

The selected poems in this collection create a visceral experience exploring Americana and the characters within. The work is segmented into three periods based on year. The author finds narrative poetry liberating, and refers to the classical tradition of Bukowski; he finds the flourish in the end of the poems. “I didn’t have to just say what I felt; I could illustrate it.” He allows the reader to marvel at the backstory and fill in the blanks. 

The collection is chronological but there is a sense of channel surfing in exploring a vast tableau of the human condition in digestible segments. While narrative poetry is a classical form, JPL avoids many of the modern poetic conceits that usually alienate readers from the experience of poetry. His work is a modern homage to ballad tales and epic poetry yet his heroes are mundane, foolish, small, and human. Taking cultural paragons like James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Charles Bukowski, he cracks the veneer of the public persona and taps the vein of humanity. The icons become vulnerable, much like the Greek gods on their polished Olympus. 

JPL’s characters are subtle yet expressive. A great example is the character of Buchman, who appears in four poems of this collection, in the second and third sections of the book. Buchman appears first in the poem “snapped,”filling out “what felt like his 433rdonline job application,” and quickly, “Like a dead branch in a winter storm/Buchman snapped.” From the first poem, Buchman presents himself as the American everyman in dire straits, living in his parents’ basement. His situation is one usually glossed over or minimized but, in the poem, we feel the tremulous pain running under the surface of his existence. He appears again in the poem “Coo-Coo-Cachew” where, finally employed, Buchman uses humor to insulate himself against an outraged customer. JPL emulates the use of humor as a mask, a barrier, and in minimizing daily troubles, just another human feature of getting through the world. It’s easy to laugh right along with Buchman. We get another shorter poem reflecting his parents through his own eyes. By now, Buchman is like a lost friend, resurfacing in “The Sky Cried” and we spend our final moment with Buchman lamenting the passing of Tom Petty.

Petty is a mere mention in that poem but other poems find themselves dedicated to cultural icons like Jim Morrison, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac. JPL approaches these characters on a human level with the familiarity of a friend allowing us to come to the table with fictional moments of humanity. He takes them off the pedestal and brings them to the table for a beer. Some of the most impactful poems read like letters to influential figures, such as “Amelia Earhart Pancake.” The most moving piece appears in the final section of the book, a poem called “My Backhanded Reward,” which JPL frames as a letter to author Joe Bolton, who was a great influence. His tone reflects love, respect, and the wounded anger that only comes from true friendship. The ability to reach these intimate moments so quickly is a great joy in the collected works. 

Over a 30+ year career, JPL has abandoned the pretensions of poets that can isolate the work from readership. His examination of pop culture and modern American mythology is precise and humorous yet appears like a crack in the foundation of the culture, allowing readers to explore and expand conceptually in the work. The poems are easy on the surface but shake loose deeper thoughts, so they are good for a quick read and a long think.


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