Believing in Today
Frank L. Meyskens Jr.
Fithian Press; 77 pages
If you are familiar with "Gates of Heaven," Errol Morris' classic documentary about pet cemeteries, you may recall the film's slogan: "Death is for the living and not for the dead so much."
That's a statement that applies well enough to poetry. It's easy for living authors to theorize passing — think of Dylan Thomas' "good night" or the calm driver stopping his carriage to pick up Emily Dickinson — but all our epiphanies may take place above ground.
One of the most striking aspects of "Believing in Today," Frank L. Meyskens Jr.'s second book of poems, is that the author approaches death from a doctor's point of view as much as a poet's. That's perhaps a given: Meyskens teaches in UC Irvine's School of Medicine and serves as director emeritus of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Images of hospitals, diagnoses, accidents and illness saturate these poems, and they bear the mark of a writer who knows them as everyday realities rather than symbols.
Meyskens' unpolished style prevents "Believing" from being the transcendent collection it might have been — several poems read like rough drafts, and a number of phrases throughout ("dagger in my heart," "silver lining") lapse into cliche. At its best, though, the straightforward quality of the writing finds a balance between profound and prosaic. One of the finest pieces in the collection, "Not Enough," describes the author's exchange with a longtime patient:
"There has to be something, Dr. Meyskens."
Yes, a new medicine, and the cancer is in retreat.
"But I am sleepy all the time and can't enjoy life."
Not enough, not enough, even at seventy-eight.
A common theme throughout the book is the mundane nature of death and illness — an end that comes "suddenly with a missed beat, / a flat line," multiple "famous men" who pass through the doctor's office and, pointedly, go unnamed here. One of Meyskens' most haunting images appears almost as an aside at the start of the poem "Purgatory," where "the hospital bed is returned" after a patient's death. When life stops, business must continue.
The doctor must continue too, and Meyskens paints himself here as a journeyman who tries to uphold his ways in changing times. He expresses bitterness at times about those changes — one poem contains a swipe at millennials who devote more attention to iPads than neighbors — but he laments just as much his own diminishing inspiration. Slipping and falling on ice, he grimaces at the realization that he is "no longer seventeen," while in the opening poem, he muses, "Knowledge and revolution bloom in the spring, / not so easily when wrinkles solidify."
Intriguingly, Meyskens ends the book with a glimpse at younger days: a section titled "From a Long Time Past," which consists of eight poems he wrote during a fellowship in 1974-75. Far from a portrait of a brighter time, these pieces are among the bleakest in the book — brief snapshots of a lost patient, confronting age, even a melted snowman. In the gospel-like "Ode to the Crab," the poet hits upon a refrain: "Are you so evil God / are you so mean."
Not that there's an answer to that question. Still, Meyskens glimpses another angle in "Miracles," a poem placed earlier in the book (though, presumably, written later) in which he expresses his wonder at reviving a "no hope" patient sent from the ER. "When science gets it right / we can indeed seem like gods," Meyskens writes. There lies the duality of the doctor-poet — knowing we can seem like gods, knowing we never will be.
— Michael Miller
Din Jam Records, 11-track LP
I knew that the album was going to be odd once I saw the gold, letter-pressed head of a bunny mascot on the album sleeve.
What I had before me was a record called "Authenticity," from Din, a trio from San Clemente. As I continued to be drawn to the bunny's soulless eyes, I did some background research and learned that this LP was only Din's third, and that the last time the band released new material was in 1989. It disbanded a few years later.
After putting aside their past and looking toward the future, the band members reunited to record 11 macabre tracks, a change from the fast punk songs they played on their first album. Plainly put, the album isn't going to be for everyone, but for those who like more eccentric music, buckle up and get ready for a weird ride. About every track on the record has eerie vocal tracks, some so dark they'll make your hair stand on end.
The band plays a slow and gritty beat on the opening track, "Voodoo Hotel." To make things creepier, the singer sounds like he's using a broken megaphone that keeps cutting in and out. The song reminds me of "Planet Claire" by the B-52's, but instead of Fred Schneider's campy voice, it sounds like someone on a megaphone singing about cannibals and a phone that won't stop ringing.
The lyrics get odder with "Too Much Clutter," where the singer lists various places and objects, like Volkswagens, surfboard shops, bowling alleys and chicken shacks: "Stop lights, strip joints and another Jack in the Box / Too much clutter."
Din experiments with double-tracked vocals on "Religion," but the band goes a little too far when it over-distorts and lowers the pitch for the vocals on "Black Road Home Again." The singer's voice is so deep that you can faintly make out the lyrics to the song. If the musicians were going for something ghostly, they sure nailed it.
The track "Winning" sticks out from the rest, mostly because its sound is more appealing. It's a cover of a song by a British band called the Sound, and Din does a beautiful job of paying homage to the original.
One interesting tidbit that I found with this album and the other two that Din recorded is the track "Great Tradition." The song appears on each LP but played in different ways.
First appearing on the 1983 album, "Great Tradition," the track is fast and punk-driven, and signs of Din's eeriness are apparent. The band slows the song down for the 1989 album, "Talking Machine Plate," with the macabre overtones growing. In its current form on "Authenticity," it's even slower and now backed with heavy phase effects on some of the vocals.
"Authenticity" is one of those albums that is tolerable to listen to every once in a while, unless you absolutely enjoy odd music, like anything from Björk. For those who need a dose of weird in their lives, then Din is the prescription.
—Anthony Clark Carpio