Jim Doss, What Remains. Reviewed by Dan Cuddy


Jim Doss, What Remains, Loch Raven Press, Sykesville, Maryland 2017,  ISBN 13: 978-0982185469, 102 pages, $13.95.

Jim Doss’s poetry, though gaining notice in the IBPC (Interboard Poetry Community), is not well known. That is a shame as Doss is a very talented, versatile, communicative writer. Reading his latest book What Remains will be a revelation. Some of the poems are simple, understated, pregnant with historical and emotional suggestion like the poem “Impressionism.”

clouds hang low
over a city
weighed down by the burden
of untold centuries

all roads lead
to and from the factories

the rain falls grey upon the pavement

the ocean rolls steel-colored
onto the pebbled shore
where the dinghies
lay overturned

then from the drabness
your children step forward

one in vibrant orange
the other in cheerful yellow
beside the pond
with its blooming water lilies

Doss also writes poems of his family’s history, both recalled in his memory and as told to him. Those stories are given vivid life by the poet’s skill. In “Poem Spoken in My Mother’s Voice” he begins

It wasn’t a rumor. Daddy
was dying from Brights. All day long,
he lay on that feather bed,
swollen, heart pounding
like a bird that wanted to fly
out of his chest…….”

Jim Doss was born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia. He captures significant details in “Lynchburg”, the opening poem of the book.

I head into the openness of church steeples rising above
a canopy of green—one on every corner.  Radio preachers
clog the dial with blue grass, gospel and new age Jesus.
Mansions built from slaves, tobacco, coal, and railroads,
now apartment buildings, grey beneath scabby
coats of paint—the old money long since fled. I pass

the African Room with its cardboard No Whites Allowed sign
in the window, the abandoned shoe factory where my grandfather
worked slowly collapsing into a backwater of weeds and rats,
and the little league baseball fields at Miller Park where dreams
always fall outside the foul lines. I turn into Fairview
Heights, past where the Falwell  brothers raised Cain
before they had their vision of God on the road to Damascus.

Just as Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Walker Percy, Willie Morris light up their upbringing in the South, so too does Doss. In his biographical poems he writes with both precise denotation and connotation, spanning time and attitudes with agility. He looks back at his younger self, brings a whole era, time and place, to life, measured through his adult perspective. In “Lynchburg Foundry, 1977” he writes

All it needed was Dante’s inscription
above the entry gate. In my teenage stupidity,
I passed through with my hardhat tilted
in a backwards cool, the brim scrapping
the nape of my neck, lured by the exorbitant wage
of $5.50 an hour.

The Lynchburg poems are not photographs or a tracing of shapes but a divining of souls, experience, the joy, the love, the suffering. One of the most moving poems in the book is “Father, Husband. ” After his father’s funeral three perspectives are presented: the boy’s, the girl’s, the Mother/ Wife. The reader that enters into this poem will have a difficult time keeping a dry eye. In the many Lynchburg poems Doss chronicles his unique family history. His writing has the detailed realism of the best prose but this narrative is poetry, the sounds of words, metaphors, the revelations of the senses, the images that glow in line after line of meticulous art.

If What Remains was only a poetry of history, personal and regional, it would be an amazing book. However, Jim Doss is a multi-faceted poet, a learned poet, a visionary, a whimsical writer. Exhibit A is a poem titled “What to Expect When You Become a Banjo.”

You pass your days in silence loafing against the wall,
daydreaming like a teenager, letting your hair grow long,
unkempt, slouching as you slowly drift out of tune.

Yet deep inside you long for the touch of the hands
that can raise you out of this stupor, make you sing
like a chorus of warped angels or the devil himself.

In a poem titled “Redneck Country” the poet imagines how Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Mama Cass, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin would have lived if they had escaped an early death and the entrapment of fame, fortune, and glitz, and escaped into the world in which they grew up. Each of the idols has an individual section. Each is a denizen of Redneck Country. Elvis for instance:

No longer the Zen Master of rock n roll
dressed in a rhinestone jumpsuit or black leather,
he now slings hash at E’s Hideway.

The poem is a very serious but whimsical speculation. Not only does the poem give an answer to a “what if” for each of these public personas, but it also reflects on countless other lives which never had or will have their 15 minutes in the sun.

The last half of the book is a miscellany of themes, historical and literary figures. It is incredible the range of topics Doss explores. He rewrites the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice , writes of Magritte’s surrealism, springboards a poem from the Walt Whitman Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike. He brings Cerberus into the contemporary world:

He was the envy of all junkyard dogs,
his three serpented heads descending like hammers
to strike the leg of any intruder, extract
his pound of flesh, send them off screaming.

Yet most of the day he lay
on the front porch guarding the doorway of a house
whose hallways and staircases descended
into a netherworld where the tidal-basin

of the Styx lapped gently against docks,
and gondolas waited to ferry the dead…….

The last poem in the book is one of its finest lyrics. “Farewell” opens with this three line stanza

When I am dead, my dearest,
Uncurl the pencil from my fingers,
Leave the smudge of writing on my cheek.

Readers will not only be entranced and moved when discovering the literary riches in What Remains but also on each subsequent return.

© Jim Doss and Dan Cuddy

Jim Doss is a founding editor of the Loch Raven Review. He earns his living as a software engineer and lives with his wife and three children in Sykesville, Maryland. He has previously published two books of poetry, Learning to Talk Again and What Remains, and, in partnership with Werner Schmitt, translated Georg Trakl’s complete poetical works into a volume entitled The Last Gold of Expired Stars.

Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. He has been published in many small magazines , e.g, Antioch Review, Free State Review, Iguana Review,  The Potomac, Connections, L’Allure des Mots, Broadkill Review, End of 83.  His book Handprint On The Window was published by Three Conditions Press.

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