Todd Cirillo’s Burning the Evidence, published by Epic Rites Press, is one of those rare collections where the poetry begins before the first page is turned. The front cover’s photograph captures a darkened place, illuminated by a woman holding an un-capped and ignited Zippo. The flame only provides the slightest impression of this mysterious woman’s right breast, a partial yet clear right bicep in a short-sleeved and striped garment and three fingers holding the lighter, the index fingernail is varnished, electric pink. Had I not been given a review copy of this book I would have purchased it on the strength of its cover design alone. And I would have been right to do so. Much like the woman of mystery, the poems she represents are stripped of the details that rightly belong to the reader. Cirillo’s Zippo woman becomes my Zippo woman as I unintentionally begin to complete her features and personality. Like any meaningful relationship, the one between writer and reader is burdened by obstacle and compromise. The following poems are clearly the work of a well-practiced writer who has learnt how to massage his reader’s agenda into submission, making clear the path for his own. He is a poet who understands the intimate and somewhat tenuous bond between writer and reader; an author who not only recognises, but utilises, the wide range of memory, emotion and opinion a reader brings to a book.
In place of the back cover’s usual blurb and praise, there is a well-chosen poem from the book, which represents the overriding theme and the pared down style of the poems within.
The day began –
it was sunny and warm,
blue sky and barbecues blazing.
Then the wind, rain and darkness fell.
Hail shattered windshields
leaving glass thrown
up and down the street,
pieces of trees were everywhere.
I stood and looked down the block –
it reminded me
of every great relationship
I’ve ever had.
(Today’s Forecast, quoted in full, from the back cover and p 58)
I audibly groan when I think back to all the time I wasted during my early literary efforts, reading all those bloody articles on various “writing” blogs, pertaining to good writing. Almost without exception, all of those articles lamented on the woes of writing about writing; a contradiction in terms by very definition and one that, thankfully, Cirillo defies as he writes about writing poetry, reading poetry, day-to-day poetry and indeed, the poetry that comes along once in a lifetime.
In the poem, I Fell In Love With A Poet, our narrator – as the title suggests – recalls his dalliance with a fellow poet.
…her words are so good
that I will end up
stealing them one day.
Not whole poems,
but a word or two,
a line she says
when we wake up
in the hungover morning
or as she reaches over me
for a cocktail napkin,
pen in one hand,
in the other
without spilling her drink,
the coolest person
in the place.
(from I Fell In Love With a Poet, p 14)
A truly terrible combination; two poets together, an unholy union of hellish personality traits resulting in this beautiful poem which brings to mind words from T. S. Eliot, immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
Cirillo’s women are, without exception, femme fatales. They drink, smoke, tend bar, hook up with weird and destructive types and on occasion, shoot a .357 Magnum with deadly precision.
It’s a strange moment
when the bartender
smiles at me
from the other end
of the bar.
I never know
if it’s because
she wants my money
or my number,
she can get both.
(Pretty Smile, p 20)
True to the mystery of the front cover’s woman, this woman’s only definite is a pretty smile, allowing me, the reader, to fulfil my part of the deal by the completion of her particulars; she is a few inches proud of five foot, brunette, has a mischievous glint in her brown eyes and, like God, is capable of giving and taking away.
You would be misinformed if I were to describe this book as a collection of bar poems, but wherever you are in terms of page number, you are never too far away from one of Cirillo’s bars. They are the type of bars that no longer exist in my part of the world; visiting them in Burning the Evidence has been a wonderfully nostalgic affair. They are the taverns, pubs and bars that the heartless, money-hungry fucks have driven out of business. They are now in the hands of the greedy whose only concern is a profit margin. These are smoke free and classless. They are dressed up as family joints, which means that every time you leave your bar stool for a cigarette in the rain, you trip over a jittery seven-year old who’s running around, wired on processed junk and sugary drinks. They don’t even have a fucking jukebox!
Cirillo’s bars are where men and women go to smoke and drink in the company of like-minded people, and the bartender knows how to pour a drink and talk, or pour a drink and not talk, depending on the order of the day.
“Do you have a drink menu?”
she giggles to the bartender.
“No” the bartender responds.
“You don’t HAVE a drink menu?”
“No honey, we make it up as we go along.”
(from Shot and a Beer Joint, p 25)
While alcohol and romance are staples within this work, there is far more to this book than idle drinking and gratuitous sex.
She asked me,
“What do you write about?”
In a moment of total honesty,
I told her,
“Booze, broken hearts and blowjobs.”
(from Cash Ain’t Always King, p 56)
There are more broken hearts than blowjobs in this collection and while booze is a constant, it is never the sole focal point. In the poem, The Only Sound Tonight, the poet pays tribute to loneliness, acknowledges its sovereignty, its power to come and go, dominating as it pleases. In, Don’t Forget, friendship is celebrated; real friendship, of the type where knowing that you are sharing time and space, breathing in the same air as a particular person is compensation enough for all the dreary days gone and those yet to come. The poem, Who Knew, is as much a tribute to the ubiquitous she, as it is to the blues and its ability to heal. In the title poem, Burning the Evidence, a piece about the odds being stacked against the creative mind, we find an artist who knows that it is better to be killed by that which you love, than to live with all that you hate.
Perhaps, our only option
is throw gasoline all around us,
flick the Zippo
high into the air,
burning the evidence
to become stars.
(from Burning the Evidence, p 40)
Burning the Evidence is about intense moments of friendship. It is for those who need a little dysfunction in order to function. It is a platform for shared experience. It is made up of love poems, but the love here is a sickness, a drug, an addiction. And Todd Cirillo is one of those recovering addicts who always wants more. Not because he doesn’t know better; regardless of lessons learnt, he can’t help but open himself up to that hard-drinking poet, who has a cigarette clasped between her lips, an uncapped and ignited Zippo in her right hand and a .357 Magnum in her left.
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