Portuguese Sailorboy/ poems by David Appelbaum/ reviewed by Laurence Carr

David Appelbaum’s newest book of poetry, Portuguese Sailorboy (Eyewear Publishing/The Black Spring Press Group, London, 2020) travels the reader through time and space, thought and memory. It’s like a long sea voyage where one becomes mesmerized by the waves and currents, and after staring out onto it day after day, the sea begins to send the voyager cryptic messages, both cosmic and highly personal: as if the sea has a personal relationship with the writer/narrators and is in conversation with them.

            Some of the poems feel like hallucinations drawn from disparate images, a montage of quick cuts, as if the reader becomes viewer watching a film that jumps from the lyric to the gritty to the humorous. Other poems, or at least many stanzas within the poems, settle into the musings from the author’s past. Or at least that’s what I perceived from much of the book. I’ve read David Appelbaum’s work, both poetry and prose for over a dozen years, and this is the first book in which he opens up a memory bank (Am I to assume his own?) that cashes in highly personal past images, events and people. Of course, we know that there is always a fictional element to one’s own personal writing; nothing is as ever exactly as it was. But in many of these poems, I feel that Appelbaum is trolling into his own ocean deeper than in previous works. Or, he’s creating a narrator or narrators that are trolling their own oceans out there somewhere.

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            Here are lines from “Departure”:

“Tunnel vision.

I didn’t have the word

So there was a hole for it

Into which she fell.

My grandmother receded without distance. 

It prefigured being enfolded by her apron

After I came from the funeral.

That sinkhole opens whenever I look

Sideways out of the car’s rear window.”

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            Most of the 73 pages of poetry, with an endearing cover: a blue-sepia photo of a child “sailor” complete with toy sailboat, are written in traditional flush-left lines in triplets, quatrains or longer stanzas. Some are written as prose poem in paragraph form. This creates the steady rhythm to keep the reader on course. There are no maelstroms or Charybdis whirlpools here, although Appelbaum does enter some dangerous waters of memory; it is, after all, a sea voyage and not a sunny afternoon sail with the beach always in view.  There are some choppy waters here and there where the reader has to keep their hands on the wheel to keep from going off course. But the reader should never think about abandoning the ship. Keep reading line by line; the clouds will part, the sea will calm and you’ll find the ideas and the deeper emotional content of these poems rising to the surface to take in and ponder long after the Portuguese Sailorboy has docked. And I have a suspicion that you’ll want to board again.

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            Here are some lines from one of my favorites, “At Mid-Life.” It’s filled with moon images, which fits in neatly, the moon being a water sign:

“To paint the moon was my ambition,

In water, like a Phoenician drum

Not the moon in a pond, Japanese style

But teary, an over-brimming eye.”

(It continues later with:)

“To sleep while death passes over.

That blessing.

Just at dawn the old moon woke me,

A grain of sand blurred my vision

or tears did. Seagulls wheeled above my eyes.

I threw the paintbox in the surf, watching

it float fatefully toward Ireland.”

Years that followed produced equanimity.

I accepted the poverty of work, with no thought

To lessen it. Wisdom escaped possession.”

(and ends with)

“The ocean that day was grey with fog.

Any hope I had were undistinguished.

The moon was a disc on the tidal pool,

a flat nothing that shaded

an iridescent pearl swimming in my eye.”

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David Appelbaum has worked in the university and in publishing, and is an author who specializes in the work of writing.  His most recent books include notes on water: an aqueous phenomenology [Monkfish, 2018] and Portuguese Sailor Boy [Black Spring, 2020].

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