Reading through Jeff Alessandrelli’s This Last Time Will Be The First one senses that he goes on Buzzfeed a lot; that some of his poems stem from the factoids contained on it. Or maybe some type of bizarro Buzzfeed website—the factoids contained in Alessandrelli’s book wouldn’t be found in “18 Words That Have A Different Meaning When You’re Jewish” or “17 Magnificent Obituaries That Will Put Your Life In Perspective.” Instead, they’re along the lines of “During his lifetime pursuit as a professional daredevil Evel Knievel broke 433 bones, a Guinness World Record.” Or “The first Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Utah.” And “From close range the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once fired a cannon at a tree full of relentlessly chirping cicadas and not a note of their song was altered, not a beat missed. They were entirely undisturbed.” The first two of these facts come from the poem “Believing Evel Knievel;” the last from “Ongoing Time Stabbed By A Dagger— René Magritte,” the poem directly preceding “Believing Evel Knievel.” Broken down into four separate sections, the first section of This Last Time Will Be The First is both its longest and most cerebral; the reader has to be somewhat familiar with Marcel Duchamp’s work as an artist to completely understand the poem “Understanding Marcel Duchamp.” Assumptions like this take risks, but Alessandrelli seems to be concerned less with his reader here and more with artistic and historical culture as a whole.
There are a lot of very familiar names in This Last Time’s… first section (Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Oliver Twist) but also some less than recognizable ones (Erik Satie, Jaroslav Hašek). That being said, Alessandrelli largely pulls his reference-usage off. You can poetically understand the lines—
My diet guru with the flat blue eye
and posture tells me that when
she was a child in elementary school
she was unpopular, always the last
to get a chance on the swing set,
always having to do all the hard work
herself. Behind me there was nothing
but the ghost of a push she says.
without necessarily knowing—or even needing to know—how the quote by Jaroslav Hašek used for the title of the poem (“And just as he had already lost his skepticism, so now he began to gradually lose his self-control and the rest of his good sense also.”) or Hašek himself directly tie in. It’s a thin line, but a fairly steady rope.
This Last Time Will Be The First’s final three sections eschew references for the most part; they’re of-themselves, stand-alone works. In some of the poems an emphasis is put on family, or the idea of family. The poem “(Mother)” relates how “as a child/ someone at the county fair told my mother/ that the bright stars above her were really fireworks…left hanging up in the sky, stuck,/gradually losing their greens, reds and blues” and “(Father)” states, “I grew up in a house/made out of smoke/ and old mental carvings.//Father disrobed in it/ the way a man stranded for decades//on a deserted island//might disrobe.” Alessandrelli seems to hint at the notion that our familial ideas are just that—ideas—and we can never see the ones we love completely or objectively. Other poems are faintly surreal— “The full moon/is a snowball//packed tight…endlessly hoping/ to hit//the earth’s/shrouded, shivering/face” (from “(Moon”)—or Zen kōan-like:
The world is perfect
and that’s the problem.
You can’t discover
the lost treasure
if the ship didn’t sink.
This last time
will be the first. (“This Last Time Will Be The First”)
Alessandrelli’s poetry isn’t groundbreaking, but it does provide its reader with an interesting thought angle, one contemporarily fresh. A few of the poems in This Last Time Will Be The First seem to still be works in progress—using it as a title, an interesting quote doesn’t necessarily equate to a full, interesting poem—but the majority earn their keep. Alessandrelli’s This Last Time… is a collection worth wrestling with. And checking out.