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Poetry Book Review:

A Poetic Voice

by Raymond Berube

a poetic voiceA Poetic Voice by Raymond Berube is a distinctive work of art from a distinctive voice in American letters. Before he died (late 2007), Berube was "a wheelchair-bound resident of a nursing home in Westborough, Mass." A Poetic Voice is his first book and was self-published, which might lead one to believe that it is mostly a keepsake for the family chest. But that would be far from the truth.

Berube had a degree in English Literature and made his career as a theater director in Massachusetts. He'd been writing poetry and fiction since his teens, so he was no stranger to artistic expression. Why then did it take him so long to get around to publishing a book?

Upon reading A Poetic Voice, one can see right away that Berube is familiar with literary devices. He uses them profusely, sometimes with great effect and at other times rather sloppily. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his poetry is the universality in themes. Berube does not just write about himself and his world. He writes about the world from his unique perspective and has a distinctive cultural voice that is worth noting.

The book is organized into sections, each section with its own theme. With names such as "Civilized Events", "Some Observations", "Retired Now", "Quebecois - Family", and "Myths and Memories", they serve to create an intrigue of their own. I got the feeling that the poems are a collection of poems from over a lifetime and that they were put together in a single volume for preservation. There is nothing wrong with that, but don't look for a common theme that holds the entire collection together.

One of the most provocative poems in A Poetic Voice comes early on in the book. With the title "Memorial Day Is A Civilized Event (for the missing sixty)", the poem mirrors other titles in the first section that play off the phrase "civilized event". That serves to keep those poems tied together in a cohesive thread while giving them each their own personality, a mark of a good poet.

What I like about this poem is its down-to-earth maturity and free-flowing language. While there are imperfections, they are forgivable because the poem moves us from one image to another in a fashion that demands an expected climax. Its structure is fitting and the narrative is easy to read. It's what some critics would call "accessible". Here is a reprint:

The cars like armored vehicles jostled and jockeyed
    for a place prior to battle.
Their line was mixed and many clogging the gateway.
Before them stretched a pasture of planted people,
    marked by row upon row of marble monuments.
This poor pasture yields only a myriad of memories,
Each plot and row watered by keening kin.
Many monoliths marked a military man or woman.
They are those who gravely gave of themselves
    to grace this graveyard.
We, the living, owe these brave heroes at least due 
It's what makes Memorial Day a civilized event.
As we pass in parade, the buried beloveds wave to us,
    tiny flags flying in the breeze.
We salute by placing pots of planted petunias.
BUT! Do we feel any fleeting sense of sacrifice?
Do we understand the gravity of their giving?
We stand tall and free while they lie still and cold
    under mindlessly mowed lawn.
Don't shed an obligatory tear on this civilized day
Stand tall and free and remember me - Row 12 Plot 3 - 
    each and every day.
Right away, the poem hits us with a comparison that is both striking and appropriate. "Cars like armored vehicles" tells me that I'm in for a ride. I find the alliteration a bit distracting, but I do like the sound of some of the words together - "planted people", "keening kin", and "pots of planted petunias".

The poem really shines in the second stanza when Berube tosses out two rhetorical questions, designed to make us think (and they do), followed by his proclamation that we "stand tall and free" while the soldiers of the past "lie still and cold under mindlessly mowed lawn," which is perhaps one of the best lines in the book. Then he racks us with the final image and call to action: "remember me …," a worthy and provocative ending.

Not every poem in A Poetic Voice is as good as "Memorial Day Is A Civilized Event (for the missing sixty)", but some are better. Berube shows his versatility in style and talent throughout. It's easy to see him as a human struggling for meaning. Many of the poems in A Poetic Voice were previously published in journals, which gives him added credibility in his craft. But there are some nagging deficiencies that bear mentioning:

  1. A Poetic Voice is not a fitting title at all; if I had to decide whether or not to purchase the book on the title alone, I'd pass it up.
  2. The poem titles throughout the book are in the same font as the poems, which makes it difficult to discern where the title ends and the poem begins.
  3. Typos throughout the book distract from the reading.
  4. I could do without many of the footnotes, which are meant to explain what is meant by cultural phrases or historical events that are alluded to. Younger audiences may find them helpful, but I think most readers of poetry would simply prefer the poem without footnotes and just look up anything they don't understand.
Raymond Berube is a talented poet with his own distinctive poetic voice. His French-Canadian heritage brings something to the art that might not be found in many of today's popular voices. He is versatile and able to move freely between narrative verse and lyrical, which is a rare talent, and his short fiction piece "Mrs. Lolle" may seem out of place, but is a nice addition to this first collection from a minor poet.

Not everyone will like A Poetic Voice, but I'm glad I got to read it and I recommend it to anyone who isn't stuck in their own provincial roots.

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A Poetic Voice by Raymond Berube


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