Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems by John Reed (2016)
Review by Eve Kenneally
John Reed’s striking, funny, and devastating collection from C+R Press, Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems, crackles from the first page. The book is framed by a series of emails from the speaker to his agent, starting with, “Dearest [redacted], I was born a lizard” (3). He goes on to note that this self-described “pathological memoir” is “A book of poems, by me, which I’m fairly sure I’ve written” (3).
The speaker is unafraid to instruct the reader on how to best consume the book, stating, “I do hope you understand that it’s vitally necessary that these sonnets be read ON PAPER, and IN A SINGLE SETTING, sans distraction, first to last” (9). (This is, of course, exactly what I ended up doing.) He also provides information on the rhyme scheme used throughout the book (Shakespearean, with various modifications) and his drafting process.
Both Free Boat’s poetry and prose introduce readers to several characters, including the speaker’s ex-wife, his current fiancée, an acquaintance named Shawn Eleman, and his lover Carnivale. (It’s important to note that Eleman and Carnivale were involved in a murder/suicide, and that the speaker wavers regarding how much credit Eleman should be given for providing inspiration for the pieces: “This would be a conflict, then: is this a book of sonnets I wrote, or is it, rather, a book of sonnets I stole?”)
These electric, elusive figures appear and reappear throughout the collection, both within the sonnets themselves and in the exposition the speaker provides in between. There are mentions of webcam girls, MTV VJs, and occultism. There is a page dedicated entirely to mugshots of men also named John Reed, and an anecdote about mafia sports camp. The speaker’s mind is crammed and chattering—it’s impossible for the reader to not be entranced.
Needless to say, the speaker is erratic and endlessly entertaining, whether he’s noting his difficulty in trying to tell his ex-wife and fiancée apart from a distance or providing the grisly facts of the murder-suicide. He interrupts himself and addresses himself within his own narratives, revisiting prior stories while threading in new ones. He also hates his name, “Not John-o-ton. John John, not John-o-ton. / John John, not John-o-ton. John John, not John,” and declares John to be his least favorite apostle. He effortlessly switches from blithe confidence and humor to paralyzing self-doubt.
The tone of Reed’s poems vary throughout the collection. Sometimes the pieces are earnest and somber, like when the speaker discusses the etymology of the name “Reed”: “All of which is to say that the name is not an upperclass name, but a name that lives in the friction between classes; it is a name of radicals, whether or not of one blood” (76). There are also lines that will skewer the reader (especially if the reader is also a poet): “I have the sensation, totally false but also intensely real, that none of this is mine, that it’s all stolen, that I am without anything, without even you to share in my longings” and—from Sonnet 30—“I am tidal need, and break-water spray.”
The speaker is darkly, strangely funny at times, with lines like, “Having endured that sad narrative, Elemen returned to the middle of nowhere to earn a PhD about nothing, which qualified him to teach Comp. 101 (in other words to teach zero) to an unimpressive assortment of young nobodies” (83) and “All I really want to do is stab people” (Sonnet 41). The breadth of topics that Reed offers is so wide and so strange that when he slips into French or Russian, with only the words “chewing gum” as an anchor, the reader is surprised but not unsettled.
When the speaker decides to end his book, he immediately changes his mind, adding more musings and pictures after he includes specific printing instructions (“so that the words fall off the pages when you shake the book”). This indecision is further reflected when the speaker notes of a room he had entered: “It expands and contracts like an accordion, this room. It can’t decide about me.” He is unsure of everything, later declaring, “A liar, a liar, is a good man,” and the movement from one to the other is fascinating and unpredictable as it unfolds.
As a general note, Reed’s sound and diction are consistently rich and unpredictable throughout his collection. For example, from Sonnet 37: “Aisle upon aisle of hot ashes / on robin-speckled linoleum tile” and “down and back, manic, lover to mothering” (58). The other mediums he includes, including emails and photographs, work well in providing additional depth and pacing for the reader.
An email at the end of the book notes that “this m.s. is strange indeed.” There’s also an earnestness, an openness, and a warm and constant energy powering this collection that reminds me of Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness. At one point the speaker says to his fellow writers, “And you may make progress, you may make whatever language bigger, but that thing you want to say, you realize you’ll never say it perfectly.” This may be true, but Free Boat—in its surprises, its generosity, and its understanding—brings us a little closer.
Eve Kenneally is a New York–based freelance writer and recent alumna of the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her chapbook "Something Else Entirely" was released in January 2017 by Dancing Girl Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Whiskey Island, Yemassee, Bop Dead City, decomP, Stirring, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere.