River of Red Wine and other Poems

by Jack Micheline
(1958)
   Covering a wide variety of subjects and styles, jack micheline’s first published book of poetry must be seen against the background of its time. The rebellion for which the author became well-known is more of a statement than a shout. We see more of his power of observation, his youthful excitement, and his feelings about nature. Behind this though, we remember that these were the times of Sputnik and science and the space race—of Happy Days, of the flight to suburbia, of alcohol, and before drugs. During these times we see Micheline dealing with inner space—almost his own race to keep the humane alive in this world.
   River of Red Wine was blessed with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The book’s proposed publisher at Troubadour Press told Micheline that he had to rearrange the graphics of the lines to look more interesting and had to get a “famous person” to write an introduction. Quite by coincidence Micheline and Kerouac were both living in the same apartment building for a brief time, and one Jack approached the other Jack, who in his exuberant wine-imbibed state, said “Wow” and then “Yes.” Kerouac clearly liked Micheline’s work and writes, “Micheline is a fine new poet, and that’s something to crow about. Doctor William Carlos Williams I think would like him, if he heard him read out loud. He has that swinging free style I like. . . . See? There is some poetry I don’t like, and that’s the poetry that’s premeditated and crafted and revised.
   . . . I like the free rhyme, and these sweet lines revive the poetry of open hope in America, by Micheline, tho Whitman and Ginsberg know all that jive, and me too, and there are so many other great poets swinging nowadays. . . .”
   River of Red Wine contains only 27 poems. The title poem uses a sort of stream-of-consciousness form that is so often evident in Micheline’s writing. From one subject to another, his mind races; it all makes perfect sense to him—the connections are obvious. It was all about go, go, go—move to the beat—be alive—BE. He describes the world around him breathlessly, perhaps in imitation or implication of speech when drunk: “covered in glories / of scream filled nights / you’ve played games / with bed bugs / musicians blew trumpets / down back alleys.” His words are more sound than thought—global than linear—jazz poetry—improvisation in language: “five bucks a pint / for a river of red wine / we are bleeding in the / deserts of your world.” The first poem in the collection, “Let’s Sing A Song,” embodies, perhaps, the essence of his message-simple and profound—let’s sing a song—be happy, don’t worry—and for singing a song he was carted away, the plight that he wants us to understand: Singing is crazy, smiling not okay. Be serious. In “Tenant Farmer” we see one of Micheline’s frequent interesting juxtapositions—first a sweet pastoral scene—then suddenly the suffocating ending: “Green grass / in the summertime / noises of frogs / in a creek / a plow striking / the earth / sun’s rays / against his back. / Sixteen years / in a two room shack.” “Lost Child” also deals in juxtaposition-the beauty of nature while hearing the sounds of bottles crashing against walls in the street. “Lower Depths” showers the reader with sounds and sights and smells and feelings from “Fists / slamming / against / a / man’s / face” to “rivers flow / in never / ending stream.” “Wasteland,” written in a different form, is a hypnotic exploration of reality and depression. In “Give Bird Love,” invoking Charlie Parker, one of the jazz musicians who had a profound impact on the Beats, Micheline shows us the beauty that there is in spite of harsh reality. Micheline often read his poetry with jazz musicians such as Charlie Mingus or Bob Feldman. He was primarily a performance poet. In “On the Curbstones” we begin to see the rhythm that naturally guides the poet: “To wail a beat / on a tin can / deaf to the sounds / of the deceivers / enclosed in steel / shelters of the mind / . . . Who saw the unbelievable sunset / which sang a song of songs? / No-one heard / but the winos / and the poets. / . . . to be born again / to the beauty no one saw / but the lovers and the insane.” We hear his budding anger and sadness against the world that he sees and his frustration that most of the world does not see. One hears the beat in this poem, the cadence with which Micheline and other poets of his time became identified—it is the sound, the dance, the walk—look at the words on the page.
   “Shoe Shine Joe” is one of the poet’s early word portraits where he brings to life the whole of a person with an economy of words. These portraits are little poems about people whom he encountered in all walks of life. “Wanderer” is another hint of poems to come, where he speaks for the ordinary man and those who hurt. Some of his strongest lines are in this poem: “Did you ever see people / waiting to die in the heat of / coffee house and automats in late evenings? / . . . In the early dawn of Gary, Indiana / the steel mill shoots firey slag / orange and black into the sky. / In the white houses / families die choked and strangled / thirsting for trinkets of joy / to fill their hollow spaces.” A Breughel painting in words, “Carnival in Pardeesville” is a wonderful little vignette of childhood. Another sweet poem–painting in this collection is “To My Grandfather.” Micheline has written often of his grandfather, describing him as somewhat of a pied piper, a roaming storyteller in Romania-a learned Jewish Gypsy. He was apparently an important influence on Micheline and his writing. “Imagination Saturday Night” is a poem that embodies the poet’s thinking and his rhythm and style and the hip and the bop of the day: “oh baby / send me / send me / oh baby send me too / send me / send me / send me/ to another / world that’s true.” Sam Cooke’s song “You Send Me” topped the rhythm-and-blues and top 40 charts of 1957.
   River of Red Wine (there is such a place in Spain) is an excellent first collection for a young poet. It received notice from Dorothy Parker in Esquire magazine and raves from charles bukowski with whom Micheline had a long-term correspondence and friendship. Another friend and supporter, Father Alberto Huerta, S.J., says, “Jack Micheline’s poetic diction, unencumbered by the trappings of spiritual violation and rupture, salvages lost innocence and simplicity.” John Bennett in Ragged Lion speaks of “the enormity of who Jack Micheline had been. . . .” Micheline speaks best for himself in a statement called Censorship In America that was written in 1985: “When I began to write in the early fifties my work was full of anger and raw energy. I roamed America like a mad dog. . . . By some lucky accident my first book of poems was published ‘River of Red Wine’ with an introduction by Jack Kerouac. I was launched on a Rocket ship called hope into a literary jungle loaded with shit, far worse than the garment center where I pushed a hand truck years before, nonetheless I began to discover myself the process of being my own man had begun. It was a time when Henry Miller, allen ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, [William s.] burroughs were influencing young writers. A time of great energy in New York and San Francisco. Out of the slime pits of America new voices were emerging in all the arts. Poetry, Painting, Jazz, Dance, Theatre. . . . A time of revolt and breaking down of old values. McCarthy was gone and John Kennedy was making his rise to the Presidency of the United States. A time of hope . . . [but] the dollar bill emerged as king rat. Nothing emerged from the mass protest but the enrichment of those controlling it.”
 Bibliography
■ Bennett, John, ed. Ragged Lion: A Tribute To Jack Micheline. Brooklyn/and Ellensburg, N.Y.: The Smith Publishers and Vagabond Press, 1999.
■ Micheline, Jack. 67 Poems For Downtrodden Saints. 1997. 2d ed. San Francisco: FMSBW, 1999.
   patricia cherkin alexander

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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