James E. Cherry contacted me a few months ago after seeing a couple of review/reflections on my site. He asked if I would review his poetry collection, Loose Change. Always glad to explore the work of a poet I don’t know, I said yes and I’m glad I did. He sent me his book and I dove into it. I knew from the first few poems I would like this work. I didn’t know how much some of it would move me. But it does. This is a fine collection of crafted, big-hearted poems. These poems mark the struggles and joys of an African-American man in the middle of his life. The poems speak beautifully from that precarious time of life, filled with good humor, sorrow, and relentless honesty.
Loose Change marks the fifth book for James E. Cherry. An earlier collection, Honoring the Ancestors was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Still A Man and Other Stories was nominated for a Lillian Smith Book Award. I hope he and his publisher, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, will send Loose Change out for awards as well, because these poems deserve it. They deserve to be read, savored, and read again. That’s just what I’ve been doing: reading them, thinking about them, reading them again.
Loose Change is not divided into sections like many poetry collections today. But there are groups. The book opens with poems touching on mortality. In particular, the collection’s first poem “Eternal Seasons” lets us know from the outset: we are in for serious work.
The hour has come
to bury my brother’s youngest child.
This poem goes on to remember Bryant Kevin Cherry, a high school football player, the speaker’s nephew. Its sadness is palpable. Its memories brilliant.
but I expect Bryant to rise
dust himself off and swagger
back to the huddle, ready.
“Jog” takes a look at mortality from the speaker’s own perspective. He writes of an SUV just missing him while he’s on a run.
a black SUV with tinted windows
bends a curve on two wheels
screeches across center lines towards me,
my entire life reflected in the chrome
of its twenty six inch rims. The vehicle
changes its mind, rights itself, apologizes
with the heavy thump of rap music
trailing behind it…
Loose Change continues to confront mortality in the death of a former student. The poet taught a poetry workshop to troubled students and we learn how the poet discovers one of his students has been killed. In “When Poetry Is Not Enough” we read:
Two years ago, he sat on the second row
of language arts class where I taught
meter, metaphor, simile, and rhyme
how poetry can change your life,
sometimes even save a life.
At six foot four inches tall, mother dead
a fatherless son, he was a man already,
had harvested a life out of sixteen years
with tools fashioned from his own making.
Any teacher who has ever buried a student– and I have– can feel the immovable weight of this poem. It comes from a place of great empathy and it can lead a reader to more empathy.
Loose Change moves into a section of poems in the voice of a soldier, presumably in Iraq or Afghanistan. “The Worst Thing” comes to us in the voice of a soldier working in a prison where prisoners are mistreated. We are given the chance to feel a bit for the soldier, but only for a bit.
…prisoners were brought
to me for the first time
to be blindfolded,
hands bound behind their backs with plastic ties
deprived of food or sleep for 48 hours.
I made them stand
on one foot, blared rock music and air horns,
whatever it took to get the job done.
I didn’t sign up for that, things just happened
This poem plays with both empathy and mortality. It sort of fakes us out. The prisoners are almost absent. I want to feel for them and I find myself pulled to feel for the soldier. The interplay works. Maybe I’m to learn that empathy– of any sort– saves us.
“Father to Son” speaks in the voice of a Chinese father whose son has died at his school, in an earthquake. The language of this poem is like lace– it holds together in a kind of delicate dance between overpowering grief and luminous beauty. The father describes the beauty of his village when
…daybreak rolls from the hillside
upon the valley, showering me in a deluge
of reverential light.
This farmer-father has a wife and son “who also love (s) the smell of dirt.” But since the son’s death, the father’s life has turned into chaos.
But early this morning, I raid
what is hidden away of our lives,
a few mementos, handfuls of Renminbi
and walk to the tomb of my son
that once stood as a house of learning
for the first eleven days in the month of May.
There are some powerful political poems in this collection too. Powerful in their restraint. In “A People’s History” the poet turns his eyes to the earthquake and history of Haiti. This gorgeous poem opens by naming the cruelties and them blooming into hope:
Who could have imagined
one small Carribean island surviving
a century of slavery, the U.S. Military,
the Duvaliers, thirty two coups
in two hundred years,
Fay, Gustav, and Ike?
And who could ever have imagined
a people buried
beneath poverty and persecution
clinging to hope and hunger,
pulled from the rubble of history
with the exuberance of a child
with outstretched arms wide enough
to embrace the sun.
The poem “Which Devil?” takes on Pat Robertson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon, recalling Robertson’s absurd comments blaming the people of Haiti for the earthquake there. The poem “The World” remembers the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis and then takes a long look at the racial element of the death penalty in the United States. These are big topics and Cherry deals with them clearly and beautifully.
There are lighter poems including “Dinner at the Red Lobster” in which his wife reads some of his fiction during dinner until the waiter arrives with their food. His wife “savors // one more paragraph, dog ears my words, looks up at me, / a smile at the corner of her mouth.”
This lovely collection closes with ten poems titled “Meditations in Middle Age.” These have some light moments too. My favorite is No. 7. Any middle-aged man who knew his biological father knows the power of this poem’s experience.
I am the youngest of seven (all living) and am almost 50 years old.
My father, dead for twenty three years, greets me each morning
when I look in the mirror, preparing to shave.
Loose Change offers the reader a beautiful array of poems to ponder, enjoy, and savor. Their sounds are as crafted as their stories. These are rich, layered, accessible poems.
The title poem, early in the collection, observes that poor people on the street often ask for “loose change.” I don’t know if Cherry thinks these poems are the little pieces of life one finds and gives away. I think of these poems as pieces of our lives, especially our lives moving through time, that are quite varied but also quite valuable.
I am grateful to James E. Cherry for this rich treasure of poems.