Local's Banal Poems Fascinate, Falter

"The Man in the Booth at the Midtown Tunnel" by Doug Holder (Lulu)

From the lady in the psychiatric ward to the man in Shea Stadium, Doug Holder describes the curious essence of otherwise mundanely odd people. “As a kid, I always wondered about the man in the small booth in the middle of the Midtown Tunnel,” he writes in the prelude to the first poem of his newest book, “The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel.” In this collection, the poet’s gaze spans New York and the greater Boston area as he observes his characters with attentive and probing eyes. Holder recounts absurd moments in the miserably ordinary lives that constellate his world. He uses these stories as a sort of social critique of today’s humdrum realities, engaging a universal longing for something beyond the banal.

But Holder’s material doesn’t spark much more interest than that. Title characters like “The Woman Who Sat on the Toilet for Two Years” fail to enthuse. What seems to be Holder’s heroic effort to show readers what lies beneath the grim faces he writes about is ultimately unsatisfying. To say that he even succeeds in rendering his insipid characters relatable is dubious. Is a woman “Training Her Pet” an interesting topic for a poem? Holder never convincingly answers the question.

Holder’s real crime, however, lies in writing poems as bland as his subjects. In “Watching Her Read My Poem,” the narrator observes, “She did hover on my page / A bit more than the others… Then on to the street / And with perfect aim / Right into / the trash.” It does not seem so hard to follow suit. Here, as in many of his other poems, Holder’s choice of unusual material actually turns out to be a strength, but his imagery lacks clarity. He has reduced his poetry to little more than people watching, and in the wake of this realization, it’s natural to ask whether street-side voyeurism is enough to sustain.

In his poem “An Old Harvard Man,” Holder risks telling the story of a man who urinates on the John Harvard statue. “And there you were / Dumbfounded. / Walking the ward / After angrily spraying / The statue of John Harvard / A crimson red. / The Japanese tourists / Snapping your picture / As if you were / Part of the attraction.” Regrettably, this topic not only lacks in originality, but it’s ambitions toward the grotesque never outstrip the juvenile. An Extention School alumnus, Holder should have been aware that there is nothing more to give to this poem than an initial flabbergasted smirk quickly followed by dismissal.

In “Davis Square, Somerville: Colonial Woman at the Au Bon Pain,” Holder writes, “And Underneath / A bone-white bonnet / Lies the waves and crests / Of luxuriant / Beguiling / Purple Hair.” For once, Holder seems to have found an interesting figure, yet his poem fails to lift this unusual woman from the paper and into life. Though Holder pays a lot of attention to her physical appearance, he fails to describe her personality, which would be a much stronger focus. So much more can be said, yet his poems fall short.

Luckily for Holder, his talent with words saves his subjects from remaining mundane disasters all the time. The fervor he infuses into each line rewards a close scrutiny of his work. Even in “The Woman Who Sat on the Toilet for Two Years,” Holder manages to write, “All your slick / Posturing. / The endless histrionics / Wind up / In a dance / Cheek to cheek / Above the bowl.” An ironic explication of characters like this one leads to captivating lines often filled with biting understatements. His accessible diction serves to capture well-observed and interesting moments in the ordinary.

So Holder’s work does have redeeming qualities. Perhaps he desired his writing to be subtle and, like his subjects, oddly ordinary. In fact, his understated humor is often lacking in today’s culture. In the end of “Sig Klein’s Fat Man’s Shop,” he writes, “Comforting us / With the notion / That there is indeed / ‘A fit for any sized man,’ / Just look / What’s underneath.” Athough the topic of the store itself is boring, Holder leaves us with an inkling of wonder. With a little closer reading, Holder finally succeeds in shedding light on society in an interesting way. Through his poetry, he exposes the world as he sees it: depressing, absurd, yet worth living in.

It is this world that Holder skillfully depicts in “The Man in the Booth in the Midtown Tunnel.” The collection of poems turns out to contain scores of subtle humor and well-written verse. Despite the poet’s often-unfortunate choice of uninspiring characters, Doug Holder is able to convey a certain charm in what is conventionally commonplace. His poems become endearing and insightful upon further reading. Like his characters, this book deserves a glance, maybe even two, but nothing more.