Poetry Review: Undertow Overtures by Larry Crist

larry crist reading a poem
Image via Duane Kirby Jensen on YouTube

Before I talk about the writing of Larry Crist, let me explain the situation. I run around Seattle looking for secrets and whims. I look forward to discovering writers who tweak my understanding of a landscape of literature that is deemed worthy of merit, of note, of highlight, of remark. Often I sulk home after my jaunts feeling fairly disappointed. Where was the exceptional? Where was the granular delight that I sought after for so many moons, so many strolls, so many readings with uncomfortable metal chairs? That lack, that dejection, a guise or presupposed state where perhaps the answer lingers like grease on the fingers, like the bloodshot eyes having been too open for too long. Perhaps the truth of loving poetry is already upon or within your being.

I had arrived
somewhere between local
& long distance

From “The Change” (pg. 23)

A caveat, is what you would call what I need to say first: I’ve known Larry for years. Literally met him my first year in Seattle, five and a half years ago. Fellow like me, we would often clink cans of beer together in cheers at local readings, the only place I ever saw him, ever ran into him. Later found out he lived in the north end (since changed), would read all over the place, and I, the south end, would also read all over the place, Seattle being a space of gaps more than proximities. Micro-climates distanced but in sight. I always liked Larry, and he remains a friend in and out of the literary spheres of a soggy city of words typed and written and performed.

The shade was moving in
He slide over to stay in the sun
She stayed where she was
letting the shadow over take her
as the gulf between them

From “Sunbathing” (pg. 53)

larry crist undertow overtures

That said, with Larry’s full length poetry collection, Undertow Overtures, released by Mercer Island’s ATOM Press back in 2014, I can finally say to have just (this month) read Larry for the first time. A new acquaintance existing separately but equal to my friendship with Larry is the reading of Larry’s big book. The book is, for me and for many to this day, new, despite the 2014 timestamp. For many, Larry is a man of the stage, not of the pages. This is different with the book, of course, but also realizing Larry’s publication history is verbose, strongly spread. I recently received a copy of his book with joy as I needed to converge 1) my thirst for Larry’s ecstatic performances with 2) his knowledge of the story told and with 3) an understanding of its score, its printed representation. This writing before you, dear audience, serves as self-satisfactory keystone in my journey to understand a writer better. Larry is certainly a writer one can spend hours understanding better, where one could be person, friend, writer, poet, performer, and so on.

We are on Pluto where the sun is small
We are white holes
exuding light
taking nothing in
We are battered lunar scapes
pocked by past excess

From “Space junk” (pg. 81)

I always found Larry’s readings to be full of mirth. Whether he told some story of a scarred childhood, autobiographical or fictional being terms left to Mystery, or some kind of meta statement on existing annoyances or pleasures at a poetry reading drunk with a bunch of other poets also drunk, or some kind of retelling of a famous moment in time, related to baseball, comics, fist fights, or sexual encounters of any shape or size, Larry always held forth the banner of “poet” in the public sense. He brought people together and read to them, shared with them, spoke to them, rallied and cried. The utterances as profound as profane, depending on the audience, Mr. Crist always held his tongue steady, never wavering too much, captivation being a key for his performance process, methodology, and validation. He most likely had encountered too many of the bores before, and needed to see some kind of evolution in the spirit of an abused audience both intelligent and passionate for the literary.

I thought about my numbing ass upon the hard metal chair
as one poem bled seamlessly into the next

From “At the Magazine release party (pg. 119)

In reading the book there is a confrontation. Woven together through Larry’s personal mythology (as defined by by me by a very succinct attention to detail of a reality bound by exemplary and fantastic experiences) is the identity of a country (USA) filled with a grandeur of emotions opened up, presented upon a proverbial palm. Sexuality, violence, passion, disdain: the frolicking of the many conditions of humanity ooze from Larry’s poems. The big ideas are the blood here, and it’s being pumped into tiny spaces, little rooms filled with shallow light, memorable portraits, and grumbles, murmurs, exclamations echoing off the walls of shadow and light.

Orbs of red clusters, vulnerable as testicles, bright like lanterns
beacons of temptation, picking them off in their yellow beaks
gorging greedily, ripping at ‘em like Promethean entrails, stealing and
resting their feathered corpulence on bobbing branches, hearts rapid-fire,
pitter-patter swallowing as they seize another and another, more and more

From “The Frenzy of the red berry” (pg. 64)

At Larry’s most exquisite moments the “poetry” is verse that aligns itself via a steady mix of concrete and abstract images, with opinions serving as undertones toward humor and dark cynicism for countless situations and scenarios, batches of fragments and subtle metaphors. At Larry’s least exquisite moments, the “poetry” is a butcher shop of lines that could have just as easily been a long string of narrative, micro-prose pieces that would be just as powerful in a tightly packed, knuckle-sandwich-sized paragraph. But the line breaks, the verse-ification of the pieces, serve as a reminder that Larry is a performer, that these are the previously-mentioned scores, that the rhythm is complemented by the flow from line to line, like setting apart or obliterating a structure or relationship.

We return like old shirts
hung and left to dry
easing out the wrinkles
absent buttons exposed
pockets sewn shut

From “The Laundry” (pg. 91)

The tome, Undertow Overtures, gives the reader something to bite on. This collection is no snack, no musing into a poet’s latest crystals, most recent forays. No, Larry provides his audience with an actual book-length book, covering many of the bases, many of the zones of life Larry has walked through, talked through, existed through. I am reminded of Bukowski, who I rarely reference, who similarly collected experiences, as grotesque and extreme and enchained as possible, and threw them out into the cage for the poetry-meat-eaters to sink their teeth into. Larry has done the same while accomplishing what most poets mostly fail at: a thorough examination and proclamation of the self. Mr. Crist, in all of his American masculinity, Californian perplexities, and drizzling Seattle wanderings, can be found as a whole human being throughout the endurance of this book.

Mrs. Mann emerging in the gray morning
wearing dark glasses, hours after Mr. Mann had left for work
with Annie and Debbie heading out for school shortly after
when i would try and catch up
so we could all walk together in silence

From “The Girls upstairs” (pg. 16)

After reading half the book, the first two of the four sections, “Early atrocities” and “Man about town,” the light went on in my head. Larry’s sense of storytelling might be his second nature, might be the way he makes sense of the world, might define his craftsmanship. The second sections, “Nature & natural crimes” and “Literary quite contrary,” sealed the deal. Those narratives, that modern language presenting us wiith ideas and lessons and motifs in a digestible fashion, a writing style of and for everybody, come together like a web. A very visible web. Looking back on the experience of the book as a whole, those earlier moments in life from the first section, and the experimentation into being a person then experienced but still in early life, well, they tell the somewhat absurd, somewhat depressing beginning of a guy destined for greatness. The stories are rooted in actual experiences, which Larry is able to talk about candidly, and thoroughly, and with the descriptions one would hope for from an artist.

Under the big top billowing yellow and white
with straw
don’t forget the straw
where elephants go
or in this case dogs
Essence of dogs permeating rancorous
The calliope cranks up
as do the fires

From “Vaudevillian wedding” (pg. 46)

The second half of the book, filled with rather grimacing and less explosive furthers of a man who is seeing more and more, living throughout an age beyond childhood, where responsibilities are known and the agreements or disagreements witnessed, got me thinking about context. What if the reader of this text hasn’t heard Larry read, hasn’t heard him live? What if that reader didn’t look up Larry on YouTube, or check out one of his many regular live, in-real-life performances throughout Seattle? How would that positively or negatively affect the reader? Voice is a powerful thing. In typing this review, I have tried to distance myself from hearing Larry read the chunks of poem flesh I have typed out as quotes. It is damn near impossible to do. I don’t think I can take away my memory of Larry Crist, which goes to show Larry’s impact on me as a performer. But what about his impact on me, or anybody, as a writer? I certainly felt like the reading experience of Larry’s performance scripts (as I know these physical pieces to be thanks to my own history with Larry) was not able to hold up to Larry’s performances in real time, but I am defiantly and definitely curious about the reader who comes fresh to the writ of Mr. Crist. What will the individual do upon finding the pieces on filth and disgust, or total fear, or jagged revolt, or perhaps the revelry, to be found within the sexual and the violent, the fun and the jovial? How will Larry be read by the anonymous reader?

And it’s only a few more hours ‘til the
harsh light of morning streams in
when it will be time to DO THINGS
and it will be the 5th day
and maybe you’ll start to see auras
speak in tongues
laugh at things not funny
cry for no good reason
And wonder whether insomnia
is the opposite of death
or is so far removed
as to have come full circle

From “Insomnia” (pg. 103)

Beyond my own curiosities, the book as a whole is resonant. Not each piece was as powerful to me as some of Larry’s classics, but each piece certainly represents the results of the task of the writer: to write, to document, to express both truth and beauty. Regardless of the brightness or darkness that any of Larry’s perspectives carry, there is a powerful sense of truth and beauty within them. Larry as a writer represents a degree of thoughtful expression rooted in humanism and the human spirit most writers achingly fail to provide in the 21st century.

Check out the book further and/or order a copy here.

Greg Bem is the Gaming Editor and a contributing writer for Queen Mob's. He has written numerous reviews for the Queen as well as other entities, including Rain Taxi, Seattle Poetry Lab, and a previous iteration of his personal blog. To hear about his upcoming reviews, follow him on Twitter.

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