Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mike McGee, Robert Lashley and Cynthia French at the Green Frog - April 7th - The Green Frog


Mike McGee, Robert Lashley and Cynthia French at the Green Frog - April 7th - The Green Frog

It’s always a joy when Mike McGee returns to town. McGee is one of the finest poets in the country, the only poet to have ever won the National and World Poetry Slams, the originating influence of the popular Kitchen Sessions and the nicest person you will ever have the pleasure to meet. Based now in his hometown of San Jose, California, Mike lived in Bellingham not too long ago and there is always a lot of love waiting for him here.

All of this was present at the Green Frog when McGee took the stage. As a working poet, he has a deceptive ease of delivery. He calls what he does “stand-up poetry”. Often, he catches you off-guard as you realize his conversational comedic  “stand-up” set-up has suddenly morphed into a poem of luminous beauty. After the alliteratively aural acrobatics of “Love Life”, he begins a piece called “Mycrophone” with the question “Is this thing turned on?” The piece unfolds as a heartfelt confession of how comfortable he is in front of a microphone. Then he seems to fight the rhyme for a moment until it bursts forth in a paroxysm of pure poetic ebullience. It’s a virtuoso performance, stopping you in your tracks and fixing you in the high-beams of language. He follows this with “Geez, Us!”, a brilliant hallucinogenic-comedic piece about him hanging out with Jesus, dreaming of the “Four Midgets of the Apocalypse” who “burned down miniature golf courses”, shaving Jesus’ head and the receiving a “Holy Burrito”.

Even though McGee is up on the stage separated from the crowd, he is actively engaged with the audience, listening to laughter and silence, watching the faces for reaction. With each new piece, you feel it is being pulled out of his bag of poems just for you. He calls Jake Werrion up to the stage to perform beautifully sparse musical echoes on guitar during the spoken monologue of “Take No Shit! (A Zoo Story)” which probably made the sorrowful ghost of Spalding Grey smile. He follows this with the powerful and poignant “Dirty Dimes” which details with a harrowing fluorescence a graveyard shift at a Walgreen’s Drugstore, describing a Dantean procession of characters who pass through in quietly desperate caricatures until the tenth customer, a woman dying of cancer or AIDS who pays with a handful of dirty dimes. It’s a powerful piece that takes all the breath away, a sublime synecdoche of the American Dream un-waking. Poetry that rings your bones like a bell.

Robert Lashley rises to the stage, his body language incarnating the Jeremiad, the mournful tenor and meter of his poetry. He tells us this day is the anniversary of the death of a woman he loved. His reading is uncompromising, the language shivering and shaking, a fist raised up in barren rage against time. The death of the loved one weighing down the words, adding black hole gravity to the lost center: “Through light and glass, the world is her laurel. / Her holly seeds filtered all light and shadow. / Sorrow is an invisible city of fabrics / from her, and the world outside.” An unrelenting obsequey performed with an almost violent rawness and fragility.

Cynthia French follows with a wonderful poetic rant about how Jane Fonda ruins everything from drive-in theaters and how one looks in spandex to not being able to set it up for your dying father to win an Academy Award. Her delivery is electric and engaging, laced with a penetrating and self-deprecating humor: “I am a fluorescent sock caught in the rusty chicken-wire fence around the drive-in movie parking lot.” She ends with a humorous story about her move across the country to Bellingham without a physical map that took her far off course of a scheduled poetry reading, which she then drove many miles back to attend. And Cynthia French is that sort of supremely talented poet who would go drive hundreds of miles for poem.

McGee returns with a selection from his most recent chapbook, Romantic Electric Camouflage, which is a “loop of poems” describing the development, denouement and dissolution of a relationship. This new work, while accented with his incisive comedy, is rooted deeper down in poetry. “I Meant to Say” as the first meeting, first impression, is one comedic riff after another, followed by what he meant to say. Imagine a Red Skelton clown trying to tell a woman he meets how he’s not kidding. This is followed by “The Winners”, full of the first bloom of love, a sublime poetic solemnity silencing the laughter: “I am the words in the night / You are the ears I exist for”. McGee takes the audience out into deeper waters with “Knightswimming” - about mid-point in the cycle where he asks the unravelling question: “Did we think we were rescuing each other? / Two anchors at sea?” He tells us the cycle is meant to be looped, when you get to the final poem, it guides you back to the beginning, Finnegan’s Wake, beginning again at the end. This is fine poetry, arcing white hot from page to performance, an absolute pleasure and privilege to bear witness to.

Mike McGee:
Robert Lashley:
Cynthia French:

This review originally appeared in What's Up! Magazine

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