Jim Feast’s Collection is a Tour de Force of Love Poetry

Jim Feast’s collection, Time Extends Life to Those Who Survive, is a tour de force of love poetry and quiet possibly the best collection of “new” poetry that I have read in years. It is an assassin of a collection that sneaks up on the reader whom is not really meant feel this much love on the page and kills them with some of the most tender lyrics no one is reading.

Feast is the ringmaster of the rag-tag anarchopoetic collective, the Unbearables, (of which I am one), and after thirty-some years of kicking around literary New York, Feast has released his first poetry collection. While Feast has published novels, and has acted as an editor, ghostwriter and college professor, his poetry output has been minimal. In fact, Feast in an e-mail admitted to me that he has not written, or published a poem, since 1987. One night, I heard Feast read one of the poems from this collection at a reading, I asked him why he didn’t write more poetry. He demurred.

This year, however, this volume comes out. Everything on the face about Time Extends Life to Those Who Survive is incredible. While the collection is not completely perfect, it comes very close.  

I want to take you on a side point before I return to Feast’s work. I am not the best person to be reviewing. Not because of objectivity or any other conflict of interest that seems readily apparent. No, the problem is that the collection that I am working on right now hits a little to close to home. I will speak at great length at the circumstances that led to the creation of Feast’s poems. Just know that down to dealing with multilingual understandings, difficulty with ex-wives and confusion of where I stand in the larger world, my poetic output mirrors Feast’s 30 some years ago. The only thing you have to do is replace China with the Caribbean.

I think this cultural understanding makes Feast’s work important and unique. There is a lot of culture confusion for those of us that are right thinking people. For those of us that are creating work within this head space, Feast’s collection shines a little light now, as long as I don’t follow that light too closely.

Back to Feast. Before I go into the poems themselves, I must point out that narrative (almost framing device) of the collection needs to be explained. These poems were written during the early years of Feast’s relationship with his current wife, Nhi Chung. However, the key word in that last sentence was current. At the time the first twelve poems were written, both Nhi and Jim were married to other people, and the lovesick poet set out to try to assess his feelings for the two woman in his life. Feast plainly explains exactly where his verse/head was at point in his “Preface to Part I,” “[a]lthough my wife, Patty, could not object to [the Nhi poems’] mild content, she was perturbed by the fact that I had never written a poem about her.” The project developed from there. Feast goes out from there to to encapsulate he and Nhi’s early relationship through the lens of 2016.

The poetic genres that Feast incorporates into the collection include formal verse, free verse, translation, pieces from an incomplete epic poem and verse set to the music of preexisting songs. Often within what would be considered stodgy forms, Feast finds the room to experiment. Generally, these experiments are surprising well executed. However, some of these experiments don’t always hit the mark. I am left cold by epic poetry in general, so “Passion and Materialism (Unfinished),” does not feel as raw and confessional was other pieces even if it contains the remains of an epic poem that almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Among the experiments, I also find the new lyrics to songs by Bob Dylan, Ben E. King and the Rolling Stones too on the nose. Similar to the tragedy of the lost of the majority of “Passion and Materialism (Unfinished),” the backstory of the “new” songs is more interesting to me than the pieces themselves. Aside from one, they are set in a Vietnam during the war where Jim and Nhi know each other, and he is able to experience her hardships first hand. While ethnically Chinese, Nhi was a refugee of China during the 1960s and had to escape Vietnam in the 1970s. There are better poems in the collection that deal with the same experiences without placing them in the pop song context and convey the horror of those experiences. In same ways, placing these poems at the end of the collection diminishes its emotional heft.  

That does not mean all of the “experiments” are unsuccessful. One of my favorite poems in the collection is unconventional in modern poetry. “Poem Written in the Blood of Fruit,” is an acrostic, a form that I have been experimenting with myself as well. The poem itself is beautiful. I was beginning to think that I was one of the few poets working with acrostics seriously. This poem is not a usual cliché based around the letters of your child’s name that you can find for sale at the State Fair. Obviously, acrostics can be someone’s epic poetry.

Even when Feast is going off on structural flights of fantasy, he is always using the height of his poetic gifts. The collection hits unbelievable highs with the piece, “Nhi Cheree.” This poem alone would be reason enough to purchase the collection. Every line bombards the reader with stylistic gymnastics that William Carlos Williams and Marilou Rattan would both be proud of. “[T]rying to impersonate the shifting city/(or impassionate it)//” is a line that encapsulates the feeling I have had shifting aimlessly through the City while caught without my love. Feast does in those two lines what I have tried to do in my work over innumerable poems. The poem flowers with assonance, consonance, internal rhyme and deliberate wordplay that conveys to the reader the amount of craft and love that went into these poems. However, you can open the collection to any page and find a piece filled with these poetic tools. “Nhi Cheree” does more. It includes the breathtaking line, “the dead cadence of its decadence.” I don’t know what to say about this line other than the utter despair of an urbanite is distilled at its heart.       

Throughout the collection, you see Feast work through the lexicon that were at the heart of his creation during the period. As a poet myself, who has also found himself at a very productive period all at once. I too find myself going back to the same well. Feast draws from two sources. Once, are the obvious images (the color yellow, rice, paper). However, the other well contains a different set of images and words, which provide the connective tissue of the volume. They include feathers, hair, blood, the colors black and brown but most interestingly the words tawny and “further, farther.” The use on the play on “further, farther” takes the common first year composition/tutoring center lesson and turns it into a unifying bridge between two poems and a conceit that drives the collection.

At the heart the collection, it is a description of the question of languages’ ability to create bridges in a reflection in the doubling of “correct” and “incorrect” English.

Feast’s goal is to recreate the early years of Nhi and Feast’s relationship in a chronological way creating a story that hangs on the process of love. As a poet that is working on a similarly structured collection. I can attest to the difficulty of hanging one’s lyrics on the back of a theme without seeming overly contrived can be difficult. Unlike me, however, Feast has the space that time provides to give his pieces room. He also provides prefaces to his two sections, the first as mentioned above about the journey from first sight to moral conflict, to divorce, to eventual marriage and the second section which saws the couple once they are together in their own marriage. Feast’s ability to provide the reader with the context of the prefaces is something that a poet like myself can’t provide their readership. Feast has the hindsight of thirty years and the proximity of the poems written contemporaneously to the events that they document. I don’t have that luxury as my collection only has the contemporaneous aspect.

What I do understand is the difficulty such a project (documenting the life and death of a love affair) can have on the poet. I have heard many fellow poets speak of the courage that Feast had to muster in order to write in such a raw and confessional way even if these poems were not strictly being written for publication. Even for someone like myself who does see his group of “love” poems as a piece that will form a larger work, I can’t just create a poem out of the nothingness of uneventful lived experiences. So too, Feast’s poems have to come from the sights and sounds of the world not just from the sensory experiences related to the lover. Feast has called me a more confessional poet than he is. I beg to differ.

A great example of the sensory/sensual experience of the world expressing itself in the sensory/sensual language of the lover and the poem occurs in one of Feast’s favorite poems in the collection, “Shallow Halo,” which I have heard him read many times. It is a poem that was read at one of the erotic poetry readings that The Unbearables held yearly on the Brooklyn Bridge during the mid80s. While he is outward proud of the poem, Feast is sheepish about its conceit often providing the listener with an explanation before launching into its recitation. I find his need to identify with the reader too much with the poems creation instead of letting the reader explore the poem, as the narrator of the poem is allowed to discover the lover in turn. Not only does Feast explain the poem during readings, but he also explains the meaning of the poem in his “Preface to Part 2.” He explicitly states that the poem is about Nhi, and he is comparing her to the Brooklyn Bridge itself. However, I feel that his audience can follow the conceit with the preamble, “the flat pavement, her flat bust/and the slivers of rust,/of a dark rose tint, like her/skin […]//” seem to be clearly invoking the female anatomy with the rust of the riveted steel of the bridge reminds the narrator (Feast?) of the skin of his beloved. He goes on to evoke the genius of John A. Roebling and the Bridge’s design. “[…] I think in his architecture genius/Roebling wanted to convey a/single, purposely static moment//.” Those words express the monumental nature of both the static moments of the personal and the static moments of edifices that have encased themselves within public memory. I this case (and I understand the irony, as I just criticized Feast for over explaining), I am using both meanings of the word monumental, which I feel is Feast’s goal as well. In his talking about the Brooklyn Bridge, he is directing the reader’s attention to the monument that is the Bridge itself while also making reference to the importance of a physical connection in a relationship I think there themes carry themselves quite clearly in the work.

I would like to take the time to point to the three poems that explore the issues of cross-cultural understanding and bilingualism. “Kiss Until,” “Lastly,” and “Tin Sun” are all poems that contain Cantonese characters in the margin. While characters may or may not be the poem itself transliterated, it doesn’t matter. Feast made it part of his project to encapsulate as much of the defining aspects of life in a late twentieth century love affair as the mixing of languages. Love in the modern age is the connect zone between languages, and Feast has taken it upon himself to document it in a thoughtful and soulful way. This collection is the love poetry for the last four decades.