Puma Perl, Birthdays Before and After (Beyond Baroque, 2020)
book review by John Pietaro
Puma Perl has, through talent, tenacity, wit and attitude, become the standard of underground poets. Her poems are tales, impressions, born of the Lower East Side, emoted through visceral, rocking verse, capturing date, place and the artist’s timeless sense of being. Her latest collection, Birthdays Before and After, might almost be seen as a poetic almanac, marking the passage of the years as one’s birthday does. Perl’s use of symbolism can be as jagged as the working class itself, and she allows little breathing space between the pages in this collection. And while New York City, in all its glory and infamous street cred, is well represented here, the poet also appears to use the cityscape as a metaphor for her life. With couplets such as--
No sun fights through/Shadows hit concrete
Vacancy is an art unto itself/The beauty of nothing prevails
--the writer speaks as much about the land as herself, with recurring guest stars like Lou Reed and David Bowie, as well as the sad notes on their passing, filling in many of the blanks. And there are the elders Dylan, Monk, Bukowski, Billie Holiday, Don Cherry and Laurie Anderson, not so much acting as guides to the reader but to the writer. There is a certain confessional aspect to Perl’s work, openly airing issues of failed relationships, past drug use, concerns around aging (but then, this too is universal, at least for we of a certain age) and then she is clear as to where the boundaries are--“We wore cloaks of invisibility”. But growing up and residing in a city of illustrious noise and light, Perl’s detailed vision of silence, perhaps as much a commodity as anything else, lets on that she gets this city at its core.
Silence engulfs the platform/After the subway pulls out
No silence greater/Than a missed connection/An empty station
Of course, empty stations can speak volumes, too, within and without. Throughout its 81 pages, Birthdays Before and After journeys us through the many lives of a poet in the city, with stops in the L.E.S., the Blue Room, Gravesend, the West Side, the Bronx, the Chelsea and Coney Island, too, amid the words, sounds, the concrete beneath our feet. “We were always home”, Perl writes in “Fear/Less: My City”, lauding the land and verifying its merit. More so than just anywhere, the assets of this town are its very culture, its people, its pain and joy and fight-back. And who better to act as oracle of this throbbing circus of a city than its resident rock-and-roll poet?
I’ll be listening to A Love Supreme
Reading a revolutionary letter
Keeping Coney Island on my mind