Review: ‘Telling the Difference’ by Paul Watsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
During the 1960s, high school English teachers carefully served from the literary canon a poesy stew of skylarks, nightingales and albatrosses with a few leaves of grass for seasoning. Contemporary poems howling through the streets in their underwear were adjudged unsafe in the classroom. We were left to discover the likes of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti after school—at which point, our imaginations became enlightened.
Paul Watky’s collected poems in Telling the Difference (il piccolo editions from Fisher King Press, 2010) are an explosion waiting to happen that today’s students will only discover in a state of reality where lesson plans and outlines are prohibited even though Watsky prohibits nothing.
When yin and yang, sacred and profane, and laughter and tears are encouraged by the poet to sit side by side—perhaps even hold hands—in his work, the result is poetry that’s unsafe at any meter. In the book’s acknowledgements, Watsky notes that he is grateful to his wife and sons “for putting up with what poetry puts people through.”
Let this acknowledgement serve as a warning to the reader that Telling the Difference has the power to unleash the imagination at the borderline of chaos and enlightenment. Bound together, uneasy laughter and joyful pain have great power whether they are borne by a pet crayfish named Cumbersome “all tarted up with dust bunnies,” diver ants who’ll chew up “the fortuitous drunk passed out in the wrong place, Granny when she falls and can’t get up,” or a girl tied to “the nearly-wiggled-out pin of a fragmentation grenade.”
Watsky’s has organized Telling the Difference into four sections, “”Temple of Kali,” “The Closest,” “What People Learn,” and Piglet Mind,” bookended neatly in between a prologue called “All Good Things” and an epilogue called “Twins Discuss Heaven.” When the prologue suggests that saying “all good things must come to an end” is mere consolation like the “dummy nipples proffered between feeds,” the book’s stage is set for multiple associations between the transitory and the infinite. In the epilogue, George says “I believe in outer space. There isn’t room for heaven” and Simon explains that if heaven were real, we “would see Grandpa Seymour flying around in his coffin.” What else is there to say?
In reality, Watsky says a lot within the illusory confines of this 81-page collection. He speaks volumes about Bluejay’s warning in “Toad Fever,” a man who smashes walnuts with his manhood in “The Magnificent Goldstein” and the danger of words in “Language Fallen into the Wrong Hands.”
Telling the Difference is a wondrous, no-boundaries delight. However, if your hands are the wrong hands for a volatile serving of unsafe words, please remember that you’ve been warned that Watsky will put you through heavens, hells and hoops you didn’t know existed.
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