End of American Magic
Page Count: 72
Publication Date: Monday, November 01, 2010
Cover Artwork: Tammy Ackerman and Joshua Bodwell of North40Creative – www.north40creative.com
About this Book
'The poems of Christopher Locke astound; every coal mine they lead you down eventually opens to a great and fragile light, both redemptive and heartbreaking. Yet his is a voice ultimately concerned with the remarkable possibilities found in ordinary human mercy.' James Frey
'With Christopher Locke’s poems, acute powers of observation and a flair for original metaphors combine to render a vivid and credible world. Clarity, freshness and honest self-presentation are the standout qualities of this book, which reminds us that any end is also a beginning.' Alfred Corn
Praise for Christopher Locke’s previous collection Slipping Under Diamond Light
'Christopher Locke writes true-story poems about growing up in America, poems delivered in plain, sure-footed language. Read a few opening lines and you’ll find yourself helplessly engaged.' Billy Collins
'Excellent...Locke is an accomplished craftsman, fooling us with his vernacular stance whilst weaving complex rhyming structures and dissonant melodies...and the poems carry a succulent sting in the tail.” Ambit (London)
Christopher Locke was born in Laconia, NH in 1968 and received his MFA from Goddard College. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such magazines as The Literary Review, Adbusters, Southwest Review, 32 Poems, Connecticut Review, Alimentum, West Branch, Exquisite Corpse, Atlanta Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Sun, Slipstream, Agenda (U.K.), and twice on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Chris has received several awards for his poetry, including a 2006 and 2007 Dorothy Sargent Memorial Poetry Prize, and grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New Hampshire Council on the Arts, and Fundacion Valparaiso (Spain). His four chapbooks of poetry are The Temple of Many Hands (DeadDrunkDublin Press—2010); Possessed (Main Street Rag, Editor’s Choice Award—2005); Slipping Under Diamond Light (Clamp Down Press—2002); and How To Burn (Adastra Press—1995). Chris lives in New Lebanon, NY with his wife and two daughters and teaches literature and writing at The Darrow School.
Read a sample from this book
My Mother’s Garden
Guest Review: Parker On Locke
In 1995 Christopher Locke published his debut pamphlet How to Burn, which was followed by three more through various publishers, and from which a number of poems included in this first full collection have been taken. The long gestation of End of American Magic means that the writing is mature and consistent, with a relaxed style, and unlike many first collections there is no attempt to showcase a wide range of forms and voices. Most of the poems are stanza-less, averaging around 20 lines, while their rhythm, though far from strictly counted, does oscillate around a trimeter line, with the line endings coming like slight pauses in the laconic delivery, as if a particularly eloquent bar-fly is regaling you with tales from his life. Locke has obviously found a mode in which he is confident working, and sticks with it.
‘Telling Stories’, the opening poem, explores the thin line between lies and inventions, as well as the necessary falsehoods required for both survival and art. His English teacher, interred in a concentration camp, “told stories to stay alive”, while of the author’s youthful falsehood we hear that “the invention felt good / on my tongue.” Despite this seeming defence of taking liberties with the truth, the poems in End of American Magic seem for the most part to come down on the side of veracity, concerned as they so often are with what feels like personal experience. The importance of maintaining a link to the past which is touched upon in ‘Telling Stories’ recurs throughout the collection: ‘Family History at Sea’ delves into his ancestors’ crossing from Ireland to Boston, while in ‘How to Burn’ he recognises in his factory colleagues the “starched collar pride” his grandfather had. He also returns to his own, slightly delinquent, youth: “we were seasick / with vodka as we dug a crowbar / into a driver’s side door” (‘Slow Gravity’), “We smoked / crack in a 7-Up can.” (‘Filing the Gaps’)
Locke celebrates the actual in all its beauty and strangeness, in the quotidian rather than the mystical:
Like Larkin his poems often end with the camera pulling back for a wide, metaphysical shot. A poem that opens with the selling to a junkyard of his old car ends with the Locke wondering if his brazen disposal of the vehicle is how we would all like to end:
“some struggle to prove our choices
were worth it, instead of arms
flung wide to embrace
what cannot be loved?”
(‘Returning What Was Given’
This method is used to particular effect in ‘Evolution’ which draws an unspoken comparison between the pilot of a broken-down plane in which the poet and his wife wait at the beginning of the poem, with a wooden bird the two of them had previously examined in a gift shop. It ends: “All I knew was that it was male - / the swollen proud chest; its vivid and arrogant plumage.” Yet, despite being rooted in the real, Locke provides an element of surprise in his use of arresting metaphors: “clouds / flickered like a dying brain.” (‘Surfacing’), “stacked bowls rise / from the sink like vertebrae” (‘Rush’).
... this is a very enjoyable collection and it will certainly be interesting to see whether future collections maintain the approach established here, or move in a new direction.
Ben Parker was born in Worcester in 1982. In 2008 he completed a creative writing MA at UEA. He now lives and works in Oxford. His poems have been published in a number of places, including Ink Sweat & Tears, Staple, Iota and Neon.
Review: End of American Magic reviewed by Shannon Wagner for Ploughshares 13th December 2011
Arthur Miller may have pronounced the American Dream dead in Death of a Salesman, but Christopher Locke’s new book of poetry, End of American Magic, implies such a pessimistic assessment isn’t wholly accurate. Like Miller, Locke puts the reader on the rock bottom of the American Dream, where success is defined, unambitiously, as a habit kicked or a suicide not attempted, and where the real aim in life is to quit pretending. Also like Miller, Locke gives us work that is desperate and difficult to watch unfold—but in it we also find the hope and grit of the beleaguered.
The title poem opens in a willful rut, in which the second-person protagonist is constrained by his own apathy:
It isn’t until we reach a turn mid-poem that we begin to understand the apathy as opportunity:
Appreciation for what’s left, rather than ambition, is what drives the protagonist, and the poem ends on a quintessentially American note, with Locke’s “you” witnessing “three glossy / ibis silently passing…”—a type of bird he and his daughters just recently learned about from the pages of Audubon, the great American ornithologist and illustrator. These last lines gesture toward returning to a beginning, to a time when the country—and the self—were still being defined.
Though the book begins in a dire place, it follows a similar trajectory to that title poem, slowly moving into a sunnier realm both figuratively and literally. The last third of the book is reflective and open. “The Unsorrowing” positions the speaker further up from the bottom: “The condemned man wishes / we were jealous of him…” But the speaker details that condemned man’s situation with empathy and understanding, as if he was once in the same cell:
This collection is entirely in free verse and varies little in structure. But while not particularly innovative from a technical standpoint, Locke’s poems are impressive because they take us to places we don’t want to go and manage to bring us back both safely and all the better for it. The collection is about the journey up from nothing; perhaps this isn’t the end of any American magic—or American illusions—after all.
Interview: Christopher Locke interviewed by Derek Alger for PIF Magazine, October 2011
Derek Alger: Starting at the beginning, were you aware of being creative from an early age?
Christopher Locke: Yeah, but in small ways. For one, I had to find creative ways to fill my time, as my memory of childhood includes a lot of silence. My dad was a disc jockey at a local AM station, as well as an occasional cashier at a corner store. And my mom worked at a shoe store for a family friend. If she was home, she slept a lot. So my brother and I needed to come up with interesting ways to kill time. This included sitting in the basement and reading through the stacks of history books my father had stored there; hiding out at the local library; and even writing my own stories. My third grade teacher read these painfully moral stories to the class (it was a Christian school), and I knew I could come up with something better. My first piece was about a skunk, two boys camping, and a lot of bodily functions. My teacher was outraged. It was then I knew I was on to something.
DA: You encountered a rather bizarre religious group as a kid.
CL: Pentecostal church. Totally fucked up. They didn’t talk about sneaking us into the Kool-Aid line with Jim Jones, but it was close enough. Weekly possessions, with bodies flailing about the church and so much horrible, horrible screaming. Or the preacher’s laying on of hands and filling true believers with ‘the spirit.’ They’d then collapse like a dish rag and be left to drool on the floor as the rest of the congregation sang songs of hope and enlightenment. So I believed, eight years old or whatever, that this is what everyone in America did on Sundays: go to church, watch your neighbors have demons cast out of their bodies, go home and have a nice family dinner. Totally normal. My poem “Possessed” (from the chapbook of the same name) highlights this time in my life.
DA: What were your high school years like?
CL: Dicey at best. We left the church-town of Laconia, NH and moved to Exeter, NH. My parents got divorced and I was pretty directionless. Then, in 10th grade, my friend Owen let me borrow a tape of this band called The Dead Kennedys and that was that; I absolutely fell in love with punk rock. 7Seconds, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, Gang Green. Ahh, it was heaven. My friends thought I tried too hard to adopt the look, and they were probably right —- wearing shocking eyeliner to school, ripped jeans with the names of bands scrawled all over them, as if it proved I was part of something special and unique, something monumentally different from the dumb-ass jock culture that dominated our school. But it was this desire (desperation, really) to be different, to extricate myself from my own history, that I went to great lengths to rewrite myself: I lied all the time, even about stupid shit, (Do I play the drums? Sure I do! Live in a big house? Of course!!!) And this type of behavior, naturally, began to alienate me even further from my friends. I started doing drugs, whatever I could get my hands on. Even taking acid for the first time on a school night before dinner and then just hanging out with the family. Not one of my brightest decisions. Lessons came in bunches, but getting the answers took years. Thankfully, I had one teacher in high school, Ms. Smith, who saw something in me and encouraged me, particularly my writing. It was thrilling. I mean, here was an actual adult, and she spoke to me like…an equal! Or at the very least without contempt. I took her kindness and care with me into the world. It’s probably why I became a teacher myself. I’ve taught high school English for about 12 years. I really like teenagers, and relate to their sense of isolation and awkwardness. I think they get that I’m an authentic ally.
DA: Tell us about your college experience.
CL: I didn’t know a lot about college until my senior year in high school (my parents and grandparents didn’t go to university), but after I did learn, I became excited by the possibilities it offered. Finally, I thought: a way out! But I didn’t have a dime. After floundering for a year and a half post high school graduation, my mom and step father rescued me and paid for a semester at Keene State College in New Hampshire. That got the ball rolling. College was a time that my writing really began to change and improve. I knew I wanted to become a full-time poet; I know, I know: go ahead and cringe. But I was a kid! Anyway, I discovered writers like Gary Soto, Robert Hayden, Larkin, Lowell, Sexton, Keats and Blake, all The Beats. I read ‘Howl’ again and again until the room spun. Keene State’s main poet, Bill Doreski, became my mentor, though our relationship was contentious at best. He was gruff and unsympathetic, and I was determined to be a better writer than him. Sparks, as they say, flew a few times in class. But it’s all good, we now get along quite well and still keep in touch to this day.
DA: And after college.
CL: I moved to Portsmouth, NH and then Kittery, ME with my then girlfriend, now wife, Lisa Williams. I started the literary magazine Lungfish Review and even found a national distributor for it. Names in the poetry world started to send me their work. I couldn’t believe it. It was great fun. Myself, I wrote poetry every day like a fever. It was in Kittery I received my first acceptances into little magazines. Gary Metras, the wonderful publisher of Adastra Press in Easthampton, MA, offered to publish my first chapbook, “How to Burn.” I was 25 years old and absolutely living the dream. Menial jobs as a sandwich maker or photocopy jerk only added to the romantic charm: schlepp at bogus jobs during the day, write epic poetry and work on Lungfish Review at night. What could be greater?
DA: You then found a home teaching.
CL: Right. I was a waiter at a restaurant (Lisa and I had since moved to Northampton, MA so she could work on her Masters at UMass; I was finishing up my MFA at Goddard College), and a group of men came into the restaurant and were seated in my section. They were starting a school in Cummington, MA for troubled teens (as they called it) and were looking for an English teacher. Well, funny you should mention that, I said with a grin…
DA: You have clear ideas about writing poetry.
CL: I guess so, in that I want my poetry to be clear. Because though poetry is an art, it’s communication first. And something we all do is fail, so I write about that. I try not to fail better, as Beckett would endorse, but try and simply find a way out of permanent failure, small breathers that allow us to keep going, even when it feels like less than an option. This whole recent trend in modern poetry, kind of like a post-post take on L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry (the poetry of nothing, I call it), is pretty absurd: feeling and direct intention are out, clever pairings of disparate ideas is in, the more nonsensical the better. I mean, in some ways I get it: many writers are still pissed off at Robert Lowell for making everything so touchy-feely, but this type of backlash strikes me as arrogant and reactive; soulless really. I’ll pass. Yet for many young writers, accessibility has become a four letter word, and Billy Collins is the ringleader! It’s weird. Accessible and simple are not mutually exclusive. I don’t need to read bizarrely paired lines that I don’t understand in order to feel like I’m part of some new avant garde. I mean, didn’t Ashbery cover that already with his first collection?
DA: Your recent collection, “End of American Magic,” received high praise from novelist James Frey, and your chapbook “Slipping Under Diamond Light” received accolades from Billy Collins, who said you write: “true-story poems about growing up in America” which are “delivered in plain, sure-footed language.”
CL: Yeah, they were kind. I appreciate the support. But it’s true. Image is key in my writing, but so is storyline. I wouldn’t necessarily call it Confessional, but I’ll allow that it’s narrative and story-driven. Some stuff I write about is from my own life, some not. I just sometimes make shit up. And that really bugs some people. A teacher at Goddard was irate a poem I wrote about molestation didn’t really happen to me. As if I didn’t have the right to make him feel something without me trying it on for size first. Novelists don’t get this type of flack. It’s strange.
DA: You’ve now found a home teaching at Darrow School.
CL: Yep, a tiny little boarding school in New Lebanon, NY. The campus is an old Shaker village, with the original buildings still intact. It’s quite beautiful, actually. I teach creative writing and literature, 10th and 12th graders mostly. Classes are small, so relationships can be authentic and valuable. That’s what I love most about teaching, the relationships I make with my students. That, and reading their work when they’re really excited about some topic or other. I relate to that.
DA: You’re also a playwright.
CL: Yes, this is something new in my life. Over the years, when I wrote fiction, I always noticed that I thrived most at dialogue —- it was my favorite part! So playwriting feels like a natural extension of this. I wrote my first one act, “Labor Day,” over the course of a few weeks during Christmas break 2009 at the behest of our Drama teacher at Darrow. I submitted it to a few places and it won a contest at F.A.C.T. Theatre of NYC, where it was given a professionally staged reading. It was fully produced with a company in Portsmouth, NH and there’s even talk of doing it with a couple of other theatres in the Midwest. It was also produced at Darrow, with the students in the main roles. Some faculty were, how should I put this, a bit worried by the final production. The play is about kids in their late teens/early 20’s doing what they do best: struggle, suffer, illuminate, and seek instant gratification. You know, swearing, drinking, etc.
DA: It’s amazing how true depictions of life in art tend to draw criticism from some in the so-called grown up world.
CL: Lenny Bruce said “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government’.” But I get it. It was risky stuff, and there was concern that some depictions in the play messed with some of the kids’ issues. Fair enough. But still…(laughs). The kids were amazing in their roles, and proud of the work they accomplished. And I received so much support from the kids’ parents, as well as from many, many faculty too. It was really a great experience.
DA: You’ve written a second play.
CL: It’s called “The Pool”, and it’s receiving a staged reading in Northhampton, MA in August. Also, a pretty serious film production company, (RHI Productions), has it and wants to find a way to make it into a movie. Talk about your roller coaster ride…
DA: We should let everyone know you’re a happy family man.
CL: Indeed. Lisa and I have been married for over 15 years, and we have two daughters: Grace, 11, and Sophie, 7. They are the blood that beats my heart.
DA: Looking ahead, what’s on the agenda.
CL: World domination, obviously! (laughs) But seriously, I just completed a new collection of poems called “Waiting for Grace and Other Poems” and have it with a publisher, and a new play. A script, actually. It’s called “Can I Say” and is about a punk rock teenager growing up in a broken home in Exeter, NH. Autobiographical? Mmmmmaybe. (laughs)
Building on this play (from the poem "Still Life with School Bus"), Christopher Locke's End of American Magic is a game of 52 Pickup. Nearly every poem within the collection's three sections contains a lasting image, whether of an alliterative grasshopper with "wings / clicking like a baseball card / in bicycle spokes" or a heart as "a small bird before it discovers / a windshield." The poems attempt to work through the speakers' addictions, desires and labors of many sorts. They stitch together family histories, parents as children, lost brothers, unborn babies. But the best parts are less stitched, come closer to "the sea crashing indifferently / against this world of heat / and land."
Franz Wright, many of whose poems also emerge from hauntings and dark corners, said, "I thought if I wrote something successful, then I could live my life and feel good. I had everything backwards. First, you fix your life. Then, you will be in a position to say something in art." Locke's poetry embodies this act of fixing, of making sense, of looking back and finding in yourself everything that has come before. Like America itself—also a work in progress—the book houses characters from many walks and times: dream-eyed immigrants, mentally ill men and the parishioners who try to call down God, students baking lemon meringue pie, Korean War soldiers, disillusioning lovers, a small girl with a small tin horse, Cuban tobacco workers, the man waiting for his sentence. Taken together, absorbed and then recalled, these apparitions quilt together something less warm than real. You might think about the weight of your own ghosts.
But the images. For me, this book is most successful when the images do not serve masters ("Let us show you / the failures of your life," or the boy whose life was "a permanent echo"—lovely!—"found / slumped in his truck, / pistol dangling from / his small-boned hand") but stand free and apart and are just themselves. So, in "No Siesta":
You don't need more than this. You come away wanting the fallen house of cards, and it's okay if some of the deck remains lost. Locke is at his best when there is no explanation or summation, when the light—a recurring theme—can just be, and when we as readers aren't even given a place or epigraph as mooring. One poem bravely opens with Ashbery: "I've tried each thing, only some were immortal and free." I wonder about the combination of immortality and freedom here, a combination that suggests both terms are necessary pieces of what the poet is getting at: a thing can be immortal yet pinned— Locke's black beetles—or free and destined to pass away. For me, magic in this collection begins and ends with the latter, with the breathing and unencumbered image. These images, far more than their stories and mooning notions of loss, remorse, shame, etc., stick with you and speak something bigger about the world and our little place in it.
Paradoxically, Locke suggests that perhaps our biggest time, our realest time, is as children, and several poems introduce younger spirits. There's the girl with the small tin horse, of course. There's the man recalling the freedom of playgrounds. But fear is present here, too: "Childhood frightened you, reduced / your heart to a pity of leather." And one poem sees "young / lives troubled by what you choose / to say or leave out." It's as if to say that first there are imagined terrors, and then the terror becomes bodied—and we can wonder which is worse. The English poet John Betjeman said that childhood "is measured out by sounds and smells and sights before the dark hour of reason grows," but Locke suggests that darkness is always a companion, and the most we can hope is to squirrel away a bit of light. In this book, images are as acorns stored for winter, briefly reclaiming what Dickinson calls the "sacrament of summer days" even against the sound of December's fist on the door.
Children relish the image, the smell, the taste, as heedless of meaning as of checkbooks and cocktail parties. Casting back at some receded plain, Locke remembers, "the invention felt good / on my tongue." It is always like this for the child, and, vaguely glimpsing this part of yourself, you might wish there were more such simple pausing and relish here, more "brown barns steam[ing] / in August mornings like loaves / of unsliced bread," more "thunder / kicking darkness in all / its awkward falling." Locke writes, "When there was / nothing left to break, we stood dumbly, / waiting for an answer." But sometimes an answer is not what we need. We might just ask, Why? And again. Sometimes, we might just stand and "see the house / fill with light, resplendent as if / emptied from pitchers carved / from the bluest air."
Rachel Bennett has a BA in English from Grinnell College, where she won two Whitcomb Poetry Prizes judged by Gerald Stern and James Galvin, and she is an alumna of the Iowa Writers' Workshop Irish Writing Program in Dublin. Her poetry, which has received two Pushcart Prize nominations, has appeared in Avocet, Big City Lit, Blood Lotus, Buffalo Carp, elimae, I-70 Review, New Madrid, Rhapsoidia, Smartish Pace, The Portland Review, and zafusy. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Radio Interview: Christopher Locke is interviewed on Miami NPR, February 2011. Listen here>>
Radio Review: End of American Magic reviewed on RTE Radio 1's "Arena" arts programme. Listen here>>
Also from Arena, a poem from End of American Magic: "The Eyes" read by an actor from the Showtime series The Tudors here>>
Book Review: End of American Magic reviewed by Randall Radic for BLOGCRITICS.ORG (Tuesday, April 26, 2011)
Most modern poetry is what is called ‘free verse,’ which means it doesn’t rely upon metrical measure. Instead, modern poetry depends upon variable rhythm, which takes the place of definite meter. So in a sense, modern poetry is whatever the poet darn well wants it to be. Which, in turn, explains some of the mish-mash quality of contemporary poetry.
This is probably as good a place as any to define the term ‘modern poetry,’ as used by yours truly, the reviewer. Modern poetry is anything written in the last 15 years or so. Anything since the advent of You Tube, if you prefer cultural references.
Lots of modern poetry is nothing more than flash-fiction divided in bits and pieces. The bits and pieces are then arranged or grouped in rhythmic patterns. Voila! Poetry.
Real poetry is differentiated from so-called ‘flash-fiction poetry’ by the inclusion of those common literary devices that define real poetry. Assonance, and the abundant use of simile and metaphor. Alliteration, either of the concealed type or the more obvious type. Anadiplosis and anaphora provide cogency by way of effect, and sometimes, even acrostics are present. And paronomasia lightens thing up with a little humor.
These devices have one job. That job is to manufacture, enhance, develop, and depict images. Imagery is the genius of poetry.
Which brings us to Christopher Locke’s new book of poems, which is entitled End of American Magic. Yours truly – the reviewer – thought (and still does) the title was bland and tedious. However, happily, the poems are anything but bland and tedious, as Locke seems to have a lock on evoking images. His evocative tool is his choice of just the right words in just the right place.
For example, in ‘Slow Gravity.’
The likening of the moon’s reflection to a wet belt of cream opens a door in the reader’s mind. And as the door opens, the mind’s eye can see quite clearly a glistening band of whiteness splashed across the surface of the river. Four little words – “wet belt of cream” – give reality to something most people have seen yet couldn’t describe if they tried.
Of all the poems in End of American Magic, the reviewer’s favorite is ‘The Cigar Itself Does Not Know Its Own Pleasure.’ Just the title of the poem is enough to make you read it. About halfway through, the following line jumps of the page and thumps you in the chest.
In technical terms, it’s an adverbial preposition introducing a simile. What it is in real terms is pure genius. The reader can feel (and see) the greasy sweat being smeared around because he/she has done the same things – used a paper towel to grease a pan and sluiced sweat off his/her forehead.
Those aren’t the only instances of Locke’s genius in End of American Magic. The book abounds with them. It’s a literal smorgasboard of magical images conjured by a truly original and very talented poet. One who writes real poetry and not just lofty prose fobbed off as poetry on unsuspecting readers.