An Essay: Five Rules of Reviewing and a Review (of sorts) of B. Diehl’s Zeller’s Alley

Over the course of reviewing small-press books I have set my sights on a specific format of criticism, which is loosely based around the following five rules of reviewing:

1) Only review the books that leave the other books in the dust; this way you don’t have to face the guilt of shitting on a fellow writer’s soul.

2) Own the review but remain hidden; a reviewer’s best work is realised in the shadows.

3) Assume authority when expressing opinion. This is a tricky one, and should be handled with caution; nobody wants to read the words of a know-it-all arsehole. Equally, be prepared to defend your decided stance.

4) Keep it short; Screaming With Brevity isn’t just a snappy title.

5) Get to know your subject matter; only a hack or a genius would have the balls to criticise a work s/he has only read once.

For Zeller’s Alley, B. Diehl‘s debut poetry collection from White Gorilla Press, I’m going to make exception and break several of my self-imposed rules. Let’s start with rule number one; I can’t, in all good conscience, argue a case for this collection leaving its contemporaries in the dust. I can, in good conscience, argue a case for some of these poems – particularly, the poems that make up the book’s third and final section – being some of the most accurate poetic expressions of loneliness I have ever read.

More on Diehl’s capacity for moving his reader later, in the meantime I need to break rule number two; remaining hidden. Let’s start at the beginning. At 19.30 on the 6th of October, 2016, I received an email from an author who knows how to approach a potential reviewer. It may seem like an irrelevant point, but while I’m talking about reviews I might as well make mention of the best foot forward when asking a stranger to invest themselves into your work. First and foremost, use the reviewer’s prefered method of contact; never send them a hurried and private message through Twitter – no self-respecting critic will respond to that. Secondly, even if you’re pretending, show some interest in the reviewer’s previous criticism; flattery goes a long way. Other than that, it’s a simple case of good manners and a little charm; both of which B. Diehl had in abundance. So I gladly accepted his request and eagerly awaited the arrival of Zeller’s Alley.

Upon reading the first poem I put the book down and declared it, with an air of pomposity, unfit for SWB. The poem in question is a self-deprecating affair where the author introduces himself by challenging the reader to take issue with his physical and mental dispositions, confessing that, “I can’t hold my liquor.” and having “more emotions than an angsty fourteen year old girl.”

At the age of twenty-three, I still laugh at farts –
and surely, you can count on me watching cartoons on my deathbed.
I haven’t seen a dentist in nine years, and my mother still does my laundry.
(from MY NAME IS B, p 8)

Here lay my aforementioned pompous rejection of Zeller’s Alley and indeed its twenty-three year old, dentist dodging, mother’s boy who can’t stomach hard drink. I mean, come on, I’m approaching forty for Christ’s sake, I’m nine years into my second marriage and my son will turn eighteen in a matter of a few short months. What can this boy, only five years my son’s senior – making him part of the so-called Peter Pan generation, a millennial no less; whatever the hell that means – possibly tell me about life and its poetry. And that – albeit temporarily – was that, I put the book down and went to work on another.

Let’s see how I’m getting on here.

I’ve done sufficient damage to rule number 1; never shit on a fellow writer’s soul, which is now in tiny pieces, on the floor, underfoot. I broke rule number 2 fairly early on. I haven’t broken rule number three – express opinion with authority – since my first, rather shaky, attempt at reviewing and don’t intend to break it here; so I guess I’ll see what further damage I can inflict on rule two’s “remaining hidden.”

A month or so later I happened upon a Facebook thread where a poet whose work I have long admired made comment on the writer I had dismissed and the book I had discarded. To paraphrase, the remark was something along the lines of, Diehl is a young guy but he’s one of the better up and coming poets. Definitely a writer worth keeping an eye on. Buy his book and find out for yourself.

I decided to re-acquaint myself with the book and give Diehl another chance, a decision I appreciated and regretted intermittently throughout the book.
The second poem sees the author reeling out of control after a painful breakup, his response is to get even by “feeling up eighteen year-old girls.” At this point I began to question the validity of the previously mentioned Facebook comment urging all and sundry to buy this unfortunate book. The poet whose work I’d long admired must have lost it. Or maybe he can’t hold his liquor either and has become prone to drink-induced public flattery. Or perhaps his account was hacked; maybe by Diehl himself?

The third poem, a heart-felt, full-circle narrative piece, where the author shows his ability to handle a good simile and provoke hard to reach quarters of his reader’s imagination, restored my faith in the Facebook comment and in the author who may be a boy, but is in fact capable of writing like a man.

When the secret sprouted
from his throat like a jet-black rose,
my own mouth tasted of chlorophyll for weeks.

…Months passed; snow fell and melted.
He showed up one day – unemployed,
drunk as Ireland – on my doorstep
at 4.45 in the morning.

…And when the secret sprouted
from his throat like a jet-black rose,
I tried to pinch myself awake
from a truth too greasy to grip.
(from Voodoo Doll, p 11)

After reading this poem several times – in accordance with rule number five; get to know your subject matter – I started to feel the shame of almost missing out on this beautifully penned poem as I heard myself say, “Damn, I wish I’d written that one.” My sense of superiority diminished in the face of Diehl’s raw and tender record of events.

In my continued reading I was struck and intrigued by the romantic undertones of the book’s first section. I hope that Diehl remains true to this element of his work as he develops his style. Romance is such a key ingredient in creative writing and all the greats knew it. I’m not referring to Valentine’s Day greeting cards, I’m talking about finding beauty in a brutal life; something which B. Diehl has shown himself to be dedicated to in Zeller’s Alley.

And I don’t care
if we’ve only been dating a month,
a week, or even a day –
you don’t have to be embarrassed
when you ask me to buy you tampons
(from Sixteen Again, p 13)

The above poem reminded me of working in a petrol station, late at night when I was tired and disgusted by the general public’s misplaced sense of self, only to have my hope in humanity restored by men of varying ages purchasing chocolates, a trashy magazine, a can of diet coke, ten cigarettes and a box of tampons to take home to their loved one. A truly romantic gesture in what was otherwise a deadening environment.

Along with his penchant for romance Diehl has a firm hold on the complexities of mental anguish. He demonstrates this most acutely in the third section of the book but the first section has its own share of what it means to be at war with one’s self. Crushing boredom, debilitating depression and the regrettably manic reactions to an overwhelming sense of anxiety are all chronicled with real-life accuracy and a graceful poetic touch.

In order to review the forty-five page midsection of this book I would have to crush rule number one entirely. This instalment doesn’t leave the other books in the dust, this instalment is the dust. Other than some quite cutting lines and a few impressively executed observations, this portion of the collection left me cold. I’m also going to transgress the bounds of rule number five here because breakup poems are basically a bit shit – especially when spite and anger are at their core – and life is too short to subject myself to reading and rereading thirty-three pages of them.

The third section of the collection is the chapbook I hope to someday write. Here is a set of poems where sentimentality is reined in and let loose to stunning effect in the author’s search for a sustained level of happiness, of which, deep down, he doesn’t believe exists.

If you ever find happiness,
cut off its legs.
(from The World Stinks Of Boogers, p 99)

Zeller's AlleyThroughout this autobiographical book the author refuses to hold back and it is in these final poems that his commitment to laying himself bare really pays off. Commitment is the key word when it comes to this type of confessional narrative. As is sacrifice, and it appears that B. Diehl is committed to sacrificing all, for the sake of his art. He hides no detail and doesn’t seem too concerned by the possible consequences of making the private public. Nobody in his circle of life is safe as he tells the world about his friends’ and family’s inept attempts at trying to connect with a man who ultimately feels alone in an over-populated world. I should imagine it makes the maintenance of long-lasting relationships a rather challenging business. And I am certain it makes for a compelling read. There is a formidable risk in making sacrifices that are not his to make, but he makes them anyway with a reckless abandon; just like every writer of impact should.

There is some dark humour in the last part of the book, which after the turmoil of obsession, anger, shame and guilt within the previous pages, is more than welcome. In all fairness, there are hints of humour elsewhere in the book, but much like the general accuracy of the third instalment’s execution, the comedy here is intelligent and purposeful. This is particularly evident in the poem, Staircase; a self ridiculing step-by-step guide to becoming a published writer.

Step one: undergo teen angst
after your twentieth birthday

Step two: meditate,
learn to separate the heart and mind
without the use of an axe.

Step three: read Edgar Allen Poe
by candlelight in a tiny room.

Step four: snap a padlock on every door of the house;
board up the windows

Step five: smash your cellphone

Step six: smash your computer.

Step six-and-a-half: smash your computer again
(just to be safe).

Step seven: toss your soul into a blender.

Step eight: tear up a college-level science book
and a first edition print of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

Step nine: burn the mishmash of words
in a cheap frying pan over the stove.

Step ten: inhale;
let the fumes caress your brain cells
with scholarly tongues.
(from Staircase, p 122)

Reading this book has been a love-hate type of deal, which I suspect is reflective of what it might be like to know Diehl on a personal level. A man who is as equally prone to anger as he is to tenderness, as likely to writhe in vengeful fantasy as he is to extend an honest hand of forgiveness and compassion; the pulse of poetic conversation and a reclusive pessimist. In short, a man of beguile and contradiction. Or perhaps he made the whole thing up, which would make him twice the writer I consider him to be. And despite my initial misgivings and my cruel assertions, I, much like the poet whose work I have long admired, consider Diehl a writer worth keeping an eye on. Moreover, a writer worthy of honest criticism who is going to need leather-thick skin if he intends to continue in this provocative stead. Truly a tricky customer; the first to stray me from four of my five rules of reviewing.

1) Only review the books that leave the other books in the dust; this way you don’t have to face the guilt of shitting on a fellow writer’s soul. I could quite justifiably be accused of shitting on Diehl’s soul. In my defence, I have also caressed it in suitably giddy fashion as I might have done had the book left the other books in the dust.

2) Own the review but remain hidden; a reviewer’s best work is realised in the shadows. Oh dear, here I am again; is this piece about Diehl or Hall?

3) Assume authority when expressing opinion. The line between arrogance and confidence is a precarious one and I’m not quite sure how to navigate it.

4) Keep it short; Screaming With Brevity isn’t just a snappy title. This essay-cum-review is double the word count of my longest piece to date. Maybe it is just a snappy title after all.

5) Get to know your subject matter; only a hack or a genius would have the balls to criticise a work s/he has only read once. As previously stated, I didn’t invest into the middle section of this book. But I do feel like I have gotten to know this work, and indeed, this writer.

In accordance with the advice from the poet whose work I have long admired, I’ll be keeping suspicious watch on B. Diehl as I await his next collection.

Matthew J. Hall
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Matthew J. Hall

An avid reader, writer and reviewer of poetry and short fiction. Author of Blood Pudding Press 2015 chapbook contest winner, Pigeons and Peace Doves and The Human Condition is a Terminal Illness will soon be available through Bareback Press (2017).
Matthew J. Hall
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