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Book Reviews

The Least Important Man

by Alex Boyd

Alex Boyd’s sophomore collection has what one speaker calls “that being-filmed feeling.” Boyd’s eye is panoramic and moves with seeming ease from roof to handrail to a woman holding an umbrella. The formal structure of the majority of these poems – one or two free-verse stanzagraphs with long, enjambed lines – is in step with the way they roam through the visual field of the city. The poem-by-poem emphasis is on layering rather than jarring shifts, accumulations rather than fractured perspectives. There are few stylistic changes from Boyd’s Gerald Lampert Memorial Award–winning debut, Making Bones Walk; instead, there is the sense of a poet returning to another day at a job he knows how to do well.

The first few poems rarely zoom in on individuals in the cityscape – to their detriment. People are repeatedly labelled with casting-couch identifiers like “the old woman,” “the old man,” “the homeless man,” and “the businessman.” As these figures are so often described in passing, there are many hasty assessments and clipped descriptions. As a consequence, many of these poems arrive at similar places, often by using the same vocabulary (variations of “thinness” appear in the last lines of three poems; elderly women are twice described as owls; a “tiny, perfect country” and a “tiny receipt” wave at each other from poems on facing pages).

Boyd changes lenses more frequently as the book goes on. “Dead Bees Are Indomitable” traces a ghostly flight path, punctuated midway by a Paraguayan car bomb and ending in a shapeless fit of static. The poet can work magic in miniature: poems about chess pieces, toy soldiers, and house spiders each animate aspects of civic and personal life without lapsing into caricature. “Basil Rathbone Meets God,” “A Stuntman Destroys the Hate Window,” “Samuel Drowns, at Thirty” and others that hunker down and lavish their attention on one individual are among the book’s most beautiful and surprising.

By the end of the collection, I was able to count a number of these standouts. And man, that is important.