Fat Jersey Blues

By John Repp


University of Akron Press
February 2014

Reviewed by Keith Taylor


Near the end of John Repp's Fat Jersey Blues, in a wonderful poem entitled "No Away," a poem that celebrates the necessity of presence, of the here and now, Repp writes:

Even though everything I write
reeks of what a category-loving
friend calls "late Romanticism,"
I am here to reflexively tell you
that I am here on an actual day
in Erie, Pennsylvania, sitting
at a black table in Barnes & Noble.

That insistence on "am" is a good example of a John Repp move. The poet is insisting on the reality of the moment in the poem. This poem is happening while we read it, even as we know that is impossible. He wants to make sure we know that he is thinking things through, despite the delicately self-deprecating adverb, that "reflexively," that might indicate the opposite. These poems can hold both those attitudes—the need to think things through and the suspicion that thinking might not be enough. This might be one of the examples that illustrate what David Kirby, the judge who gave this book the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize, meant when he called Repp "generous."

Those lines themselves have a direct presence, moving energetically through uncluttered syntax. They have a forceful plain-spokenness that has been hard-earned through the fourteen or fifteen collections that Repp has published over the last 25 years. He has heard his language and is clearly choosing the levels and tones at which he will write it. Those lines have a fairly regular size, a three or four beat free verse line that might suggest an influence from Philip Levine, if there weren't so many other line and stanza lengths included in the book.

But it is Repp's vision that includes all the aspects of the poet's life—from personal narrative to a comfort with meditative reflection to a wide range of literary references—that lifts this collection far beyond the simply admirable. The joke being played on the "category-loving friend" and the need to label Repp's poetics (and, by implication, the poet's pleasure in recognizing the category where he has been placed) show the ease these poems have with their erudition. Even his titles make a little joke, hinting at a tired knowledge of the poetry scene: "Blueberry (or 'Another Summer-of-1975 Poem')"; "Another Harvey-Pekar-is-Dead Poem"; and "My Wife's Ass (or'"You Annoy Me, Matthew Dickman!)", which manages to both praise and criticize Repp's colleague in the art.

This poet can make these intentionally ironic literary allusions without ever once forgetting, or letting his readers forget, where he comes from. Fat Jersey Blues is primarily an exploration of memory, and, in particular, that of Repp's family and their lives in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Repp's background is much more rural or small-town than most of our literary associations with New Jersey would suggest; it's hard to believe he can actually make his state sound isolated. He seems to hark back to that sense in William Carlos Williams that New Jersey is a forgotten place of hard working people scratching out a life on the edge of America. This New Jersey is not a bedroom community for New York City.

Repp remembers where he came from:

My father did everything that day
& ten thousand others. He cast
into the surf many midnights,
shoveled truckloads of fill
into the swamp & pinned bills
to the Ebner's Milk blotter
as the ancestral fires blazed.

In another poem, "Everywhere at Once," that recalls 1965, the poet's mother, and her death, yet includes a contemporary plane ride and some reading, Repp brings the past into the present in a Nabokovian move that uses contemporary idiom to capture a remembered moment. The barriers of time suddenly seem to become less rigid:

I can't be everywhere at once
my mother said, wrenching the wheel
as she zoomed me somewhere
in the black Chevy never to vroom
through another poem driven by a mother
who earned the peace no one will ever know
decades ago if suffering is payment,
which is because I say so, invoice paid in full
as soon as this ends, oh dead, oh patient mother.

The narrative moves into address, then prayer, and then begins to sound something like song, which brings us back to Repp's title, Fat Jersey Blues.

Repp has included several of his blues lyrics throughout the collection, where they punctuate the narratives and meditations. The second to the last poem gets us ready to leave the book:

oh when he died daddy said to tie him to a board
daddy died sitting up and said tie me to a board
float me down Hansey Creek to the mouth of the Lord

The poem carries the weight of the book's title. Repp's epigraph for the collection claims to be from Junior J. Walter's blues of the same title, "Fat Jersey Blues." In a note, the poet tells us, "Junior J. Walter was a Pine Barrens bluesman so elusive some say he never lived […]. The collector Fuzzy Miner describes Walter's sound as 'Satan in a good mood.' Junior J. Walter's burial place has never been found." My search engines, admittedly a bit primitive, take me to someone of that name who lived around the right time, but who didn't appear to be anywhere near New Jersey. He seems to be an almost forgotten artist living primarily in one poet's memory and his generous imagination.