Off the Cuffs
Poetry by and
About the Police

Jackie Sheeler, Editor
(Soft Skull Press
71 Bond St
Brooklyn NY)
You've read poetry about trees and springtime in Paris and Love and the Moon and even poetry about poetry. But how about poems on handcuffs and drive-by shootings and getting caught by the police and dying in a pool of blood and "Street Justice" and "On the Beat" and "Married to a Cop:"

    Blue lint
         brushed from the sheets
    polished shoes
         under the bed
    backfire dreams
         a gun in my ribs
    as we make love.

    He sleeps
         fully clothed
    ready for the siren
         someone's emergency
    my simple request
         for a calm night's sleep
    lost in prestige.

Ms. Sheeler has gathered poems divided into four sections: "Eyewitnesses," "Victims & Perpetrators," "Insiders," and "Dreamers." It's a prime collection, and what is more impressive, it's apolitical. Police poets share the podium with street activists, lawyers, ACLU types, and those in jail. Sharon Preiss tells of "four cop cars" going after "white boys/drunk and scared in the back seat" --- "Cuffed and spread-eagle for running a/stop sign." Jackie Sheeler writes of "my own handsome cop-daddy's eyes." Ross Martin gets nabbed for going 100 and he thinks "I'm nothing" to the highway patrolman

    but his bitch ex-wife
    the screaming chief the IRS I shot his partner
    fucked his girl I peed in his pancakes boiled
    his rabbit spilled his cocaine
    there's a body
    in my kitchen another in the bed I put brie
    in them both to attract the rats I'm Happy
    the Clown with a kid on my lap I'm Paul
    Bernardo Patrick Bateman I go out at night
    to dig up earthworms David Berkowitz

Sarah Cortez who lists herself as "patrol police officer" (all contributors give a two or three word self-description) says,

    This is how it goes
    when you're dating
    a cop
    You say, "Will you be home for dinner?"
    He says, "Negative."
    You say "Do you like this dress?"
    and he says, "It's a good visual."
    "Face to face is a meeting,
    not a kiss or a snuggle.
    "Fuck you" means hello.
    "To dust" is to kill.

There is a poem on being raped, mostly filled with the disinterested questions from the police. There's one about a professor becoming a cop ("Who needs another English major?") There is another on teaching film in prison, and, too, "Dropping Daddy off at Jail." There are others telling of a friend shot by a nervous policeman, a suicide from an apartment rooftop, doing antipoverty work in the barrio, hate crimes (and their opposite, what police call LC --- "Love Crimes"), and one on a woman who habitually kicks out windows on police cruisers.

This is an excellent anthology put together with no agenda. The editor has gone out of her way to give equal time to all. She also, apparently, had sought out the most moving, over 150 poems that --- for this reader, and practically without exception --- work not only as statements, but as well, are worthy verse.

--- Doris J. Goodman

Pieces of

The Existential Poetry of
Donald H. Rumsfeld

Hart Seely, Editor
(Free Press)
This is a lovely book. The press conferences of Secretary Rumsfeld are sometimes almost lyrical. He has a way with words. He may have wrong policies, he may be less than open in his responses but he always has a nugget of wisdom, a playfulness with phrasing, even perhaps a keen observation.

It is not for this reviewer to ruin the pleasure of those who will read this little book by quoting some of the best poems here. Nevertheless, who can resist such lines as these:

The Unknown

    As we know, There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know,
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don't know we don't know.

Some of the Secretary's poems are clearly influenced by Robert Frost. They have an unexpected yet keen observation.

Needless to Say
    Needless to say,
    The president is correct.
    Whatever it was he said.

And sometimes he indulges himself with cheerful imagery:

Balloons and Music
    You saw what happened in Afghanistan:
    The people went out in the streets,
    And they were joyous
    And they had balloons
    And they played music
    And they welcomed the U.S.
    Because everyone knows
    The United States doesn't want to occupy Iraq.

This book comes at an appropriate time. God knows we all need some cheer and some wisdom. It comes from an unexpected source.

--- Hugh Gallagher


A Pictorial History of
Accidents on the Main Line

Robert C. Reed
When I was a kid growing up in north Florida, train wrecks were not allowed. The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad owned the local rag, the Florida Times Union, so any crossing accidents --- at least on the Coast Line --- were ignored or banished to 3-point type on the back pages, under the pork-belly futures market. We had to find out about them by word-or-mouth, or by dying in one.

What is it about train wrecks that delights us old rail buffs? Certainly those into old cars don't want to see a Duesenberg tangled up with a Model T. Sports car racing enthusiasts don't go gaga over stock cars in a heap. Airplane nuts don't look for pictures of 707s falling from the sky. Sailboat aficionados don't want to see a three-masted schooner keel up. Dune buggy enthusiasts don't seek out four fat wheels sticking up in the air, revolving ever so slowly.

Maybe it is the sheer massiveness of it: a 150 ton Baldwin 2-6-2 tipped over, a Pennsylvania Railroad engine upside-down in the Delaware River, an old Soo Line steam engine bent double, amidst tracks bent double as well.

Whatever it is, we rail fans will seek out pictures of the most awful tumbles, tracks torn up, boilers exploded, telescopic wrecks where the engine of a train from behind fits uncomfortably inside a rail passenger car (imagine those people glancing back and seeing a black steaming locomotive coming straight at them, 75 mph. Wouldn't that be a heart-stopper?)

Mr. Reed has put together a hundred or so lithographs and photographs from the last two centuries showing engines, passenger cars, and passengers in a variety of awkward positions. He takes us back to some of the very earliest wrecks, such as the Camden & Amboy near Burlington, New Jersey, where two engines mounted up, as witnesses reported, "like two dogs in a fight." He tells of the first railroad death, one in 1831 that occurred on the South Carolina Road when an engine blew up and killed a black slave trainman.

Early engines had no brakes --- they had to be stopped by the conductor hitting the brakes in the passenger cars. Since the first trains ran slowly and scarcely ever at night (roaming livestock was dangerous; early engines didn't carry a cow-catcher) it wasn't until the year 1853 that wrecks began to happen on a massive scale. This was due to increased weight, speed, train lengths, and traffic.

By the end of the 19th century, the number of wrecks and deaths skyrocketed: 8,216 collisions and derailments were recorded in 1880 alone. Part of the blame lay with the federal government's policy of giving land away to those railroads who laid their tracks quickly. It was often done in such a shoddy fashion that tracks came apart, street crossings showed no warnings, and railroad bridges were not up to the task.

Early coaches were of wood, and in winter, were heated by coal stoves. Any accident could set the passenger car on fire. Imagine racing to Moline one night at 50 mph or so, there's a lurch, the stove tips over, and you have the choice of getting fried or jumping out the window into the dark.

The book is divided into thirteen parts, including "Boiler Explosions," "Crossing Accidents," "Runaways," "Hotboxes and Broken Parts," "Bridge Disasters," and "Head-On Collisions." It gives us shots of over a hundred selected wrecks, including whole trains wandering off the tracks and down hills, toppled over the sides of bridges, exploded, eviscerated, and one delightful bang-up on New York's old Third Avenue El.

These lithographs and photographs are intermixed with ads for passenger cars, safety switches, passenger-car heaters, and bridge-building companies.

Our favorite wrecks (some shown here) reveal engines crawling atop of each other, like a dog and a bitch in heat. Those who didn't care to be in a wreck could watch from a distance: early State Fairs would feature head-on collisions between retired steam engines. Who could resist a noisy spectacle like that?

If you think that we're out of the woods, The New York Times Almanac tells us that during the years 2000-2001 there were almost 5,000 accidents in the U.S. The rail company with the best safety record per million miles was Norfolk Southern. The worst (with an accident rate almost double the nearest competitor) was the Kansas City Southern.

--- Robin A. Woodstock

Kingdom of

Alan Furst
(Victor Gollancz)
We have previously written about the war-spy novels of Alan Furst. He specializes in lively chases and love-makings in Europe in the days just before the coming of World War II.

Furst's heroes are laconic nobility who speak several languages, drink champagne for breakfast, travel back and forth between their homes in Paris and their home countries which are on the brink of being invaded by the wehrmacht. The elegant folk grew up in the estates of Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and they are here waking up to the fact that a madman is running Germany, hungers after their territory, seems unstoppable, and might end up running the world, their world.

What gives such power to Furst's writing is not only his style --- he is a master of dialogue and brief sketches of characters and of scenes --- but the brooding sense of fatalism which was Europe in 1938, 1939, 1940. The elegant upper-class world was about to be mangled by the Russians or this Austrian private with the pop-eyes and ghastly taste in architecture.

Kingdom of Shadows is one of Furst's more recent works. The hero is Morath. He dips in and out of troubles in Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Rumania: always getting shot at, never getting killed. One such trip takes him into Czechoslavia, in 1939, shortly after the Germans had conquered the country, courtesy of the English and French:

    Dr Lapp, wearing a flat-brimmed straw boater at a jaunty angle, was waiting for him in the room, fanning himself with a room-service menu.

    "I didn't hear you knock," Morath said.

    "Actually, I did knock," Dr Lapp said, slightly amused. "Of course, I'll be happy to apologize, if you wish."

    "Don't bother."

    Dr Lapp stared out the window. The street lamps were on, couples strolling in the mountain air. "You know, I cannot abide these people, the Czechs."

    Morath hung up his jacket, then began undoing his tie. He did not want there to be a war in Europe, but he was going to take a bath.

    "They have no culture," Dr Lapp said.

    "They think they do."

    "What, Smetana? Perhaps you like Dvorak. Good God!"

§     §     §

Kingdom of Shadows is not Furst's most elegant, for the engine doesn't start revving up until half-way through. Even so, there are passages that remind us of Raymond Chandler at his best. Morath's last adventure sends him into Vienna, newly taken over by the Nazis. He goes in to rescue a musician, married to the American Blanche, who was

    a vivid blonde with black eyebrows, tanned skin from a life spent by Hollywood pools, and an imposing bosom on a body that should have been Rubenesque but was forced to live on grapefruit and toast.

For better Furst, read The Polish Officer (Random House) with the reluctant terrorist Captain de Milja. The train chase is as gripping as the elevated chase scene in The French Connection or the one in The General.

For the best all-around knock-out Furst --- grandly put together, the perfect mix of suspense and dry cynicism --- read Blood of Victory (also Random House) which we reviewed earlier this year. Serebin is the man. His lady, Marie-Galante is as "Fragrant as melon, warm as toast."

--- A. D. Risley

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