Toy Marine, 2011


“Toy Marine, 2011” by Alex M. Frankel (This poem vanished from the web when the journal Word Riot suddenly disappeared; however, it can be seen here–but not heard!–as well as at this link, thanks to the Wayback Machine:

Listen to a reading of “Toy Marine” by Alex M. Frankel.
Strange roads for body and for mind these nights
of ancient queens posing online as babes
and famished youth easy to deceive.
I’m none too proud of my invented self—
hardly the life my parents dreamed for me
when we lit the Shabbos candles long ago
or when they watched me walk in cap and gown
among Greek statues, ivied walls and fanfare:
who could’ve guessed that walking next to me
—anonymous, inconspicuous—
was our Head-of-State-to-be, admired and loathed
by billions now, but way back then my equal?
These days He preaches from the White House steps,
the Dow Jones hanging on His every word
while I sneak pictures of a random schoolgirl
to surfers, swimmers, wrestlers, soccer jocks.
“Fantastic eyes, amazing boobs!”—this praise
from a rugged friend I’ve made on AOL
(he can’t see my baldness or my beard,
he can’t see my wrinkles or my back hair):
Edgar Ramirez, SupermanMarine,
twenty-one and stationed in Iraq—
to him I’m just a snapshot of a girl,
while he treats me to webcam shows so hot
I nearly weep. Hours and hours a night
I run away from drabness to my strangers,
but of all the twinks I dupe, this one is gold,
of all the body parts, this chest is heaven,
how he’s sculpted and defaced it with an S:
huge Superman tattoo across the chest—
imagine I could access it with tongue,
lips, nose, even teeth: they’re always rushed,
these urgent sessions in the barracks john.
While he performs, I sniff my wrists and forearms—
can’t get enough of my own smells, they’re great!
After he’s done he needs some pillow talk,
as if we were going out—I cringe, it’s nuts.
I’d like to tell him, “I once knew God a bit,
the well-known One who speaks from the East Room.
At school we were two nobodies together!
(I began my death, my flight into the Web,
the day I realized He’d become a Star.)
Look, I’m not your peer, I’m not the coed
whose pics I spread around the Internet.”
But…I let the fraud go on…Was it for this
my parents spent a fortune on Columbia?
“I hate Iraq and I’m lonely,” he’ll type,
“I love that you’re somewhere in my life, Jasmine.”
He wears a lot of gear, looks like a spaceman,
which makes it hard to get to know the legs
and all a soldier’s legs can do for men,
but once or twice he shows them and I’m smitten
with the reckless tats he’s inked around the ankles.
“You ever see combat?” I ask one night.
“You ever see a man blown up?” “Yes ma’am,”
he types, “right next to me and had to save em.
Can we change the subject LOL?
Horned up and need to bust!—you down at all?”
That night he puts on a flawless webcam show,
I’m drained and filled at once. In the shower
I have a vision of a house—my own house!—
try to scrub away all vestiges
of Tina, Lana, Maricela, Jasmine,
take my mind off SupermanMarine.
Two years go by before I google him:
“Edgar Ramirez died in Helmand Province
among five victims of a roadside blast.
On his chest he had an S for Superman
since he’d always get in trouble, come out fine.”
His buddy says, “I loved his goofy smirk.”
A local news report from Florida:
Puerto Rican father with a portrait
of a white-gloved boy in formal Blues:
“Yo quisiera que hubiera paz…”
Two brothers helpless. “Edgar he’s my life,
he meaned the whole world for me, part of me
isn’t coming back, he’s my baby brother
and I’m mad. Got his Superman on his chest
senior year. Always thought he could save you.”

Edgar is still my pal on AOL,
but what’s his status there? It says only
We find no visible activities
in this Lifestream. I hit him up tonight,
I send him an emoticon salute.

Screen shot 2014-01-16 at 10.06.49 PMAbout the author:

Alex M. Frankel’s poetry collection Birth Mother Mercy has just been published by Lummox Press. He has published poetry and prose in magazines such as The Antioch Review, The Comstock Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, and The Gay and Lesbian Review, among other journals. He is working on a full-length memoir, based on his essay “Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four Parents,” viewable online in the journal Switchback. About Birth Mother Mercy, Alicia Ostriker has written, “Days and nights in Los Angeles, roots tugged out, wrung out, chat rooms, classrooms, malls, toilets, Help Wanted at the 7-Eleven, elusive boys, ‘urgent hunger,’ the American 20th century, loneliness and betrayal—these poems have begun to haunt me. Alex M. Frankel sings in a register almost beyond hearing, the pain is so keen, the writing so fine.”

Uppercut: A Review of Alex M. Frankel’s Birth Mother Mercy (Lummox Press)

 Uppercut: A Review of Alex M. Frankel’s Birth Mother Mercy

Lummox Press, San Pedro, CA

© 2013

Review by Steve Goldman

 102% of American families are dysfunctional.

                  Robert Bly in casual conversation


…  A birth mother does not kiss

With iron heart and easy petal she flees…

                       Alex M. Frankel


Reviewing Alex M. Frankel’s poetry collection Birth Mother Mercy is by far the most painful and difficult reviewing I have ever been called upon to do. And I hope it remains that way forever. Not because it is so mordantly brutal and bursting with rage, describing the terrible matters it does, but because of how completely I identify with it – because of the great pain I feel in revisiting all that in my own life. Perhaps because I’ve written my own such cathartic book – I really don’t want to read this one. But this is “special pleading” and no commentary on the quality of the book at hand, which is superb.

But Birth Mother Mercy along with its dryly and nigh perfectly contoured “sharp stick in the eye” language, is honest and not excessive. The autobiographical poetry here is not about family life or relations such as you’d see on Leave It to Beaver. Rather, we are talking about hideous emotional and psychological abuse in family history. Total rejection a priori, attendant betrayal of any decent or even minimal human support and affirmation, ceaseless schooling in your own vileness, killing and sui generous loneliness, depression, substance dependency, legal or otherwise, social dislodgement, economic murder via fraudulent interdiction of rightful inheritance and being driven to crazy measures to somehow compensate,  to name a few.

The vile developmental aspects of Alex’s life earn the strong pejorative treatment noted and to say the least, I don’t know how he could have written this book any other way. Here vituperation becomes art, goddamned honest art. I once saw a kitchen sampler which read: “So work your grief into art and it will leave you”.  I hope writing and publishing this book has helped Alex, as I know my almost identically themed book has helped me, and I hope it helps anyone reading it, as discovering Sharon Olds helped me.

OK, a digression. Here we are on about autobiographical poetry; a term arrived at independently by me and the aforementioned Sharon Olds. The point is that this is not “confessional” poetry. Alex, Sharon, I and multitudes of others have nothing to confess. We are not criminals, we are not crazy, we are not worthless, and we are not illegitimate. And that Reader is the fundamental point, that and conversion as best possible of the indelible stigma of family damage: to recover our endemic dignity

A blurb on the back of the handsomely mounted book notes that Alex’s images make an “uppercut – punch use of language”. This guy (Eric Morago) knows whereof he speaks; uppercut: hardest punch to see coming, because only usable at very close quarters or in a clinch, with a unique vertical trajectory and devastating when done right.

So here we go. In the first lines of the first stanza of the first poem of this book namely The Growth we find:

Snug inside the wet flesh of a girl

 there’s a stowaway curled up

bundled in a bubble safe from scandal,

it must not be seen, it must think small, smaller, smallest

even when its eyes are wanting to explore

“…stowaway…”!? This guy was rejected prenatally. Even before birth, before being “thrust into the world” (geworfen – a la Heidegger) with, like all of us, neither his own permission nor intent – he is instructed and structured to become “small, smaller, smallest” in a dark pregnancy, the opposite of growth, of gestation, of nurturance. And mom-to-be must physically conceal her “shameful” pregnancy. Hell of away to enter the world, wouldn’t you say? In a poem of my own, I designate myself as being “technically legitimate// the bastard save only in name“ Nuff said?

Oh yes, it is now definitively known to medicine that a mother’s mood during pregnancy can affect the development and personality of the newborn to be, that and whatever genetic predispositions are at play.  My own mother was chronically depressed. The family life there was one of ceaseless shrill screaming to me about how wrong, evil, incompetent and disingenuous I was. I was literally born and bred for depression.  I know what Alex knows, and reading this so painful a book, it provokes as noted my own reminiscences. The upside is that I don’t feel so alone. How ‘bout that folks: in utero depression?

So then, let’s just brush by some of these related concerns, or should I say agonies?

As for depression, clinical depression (my own specialty – I majored in it in college) I will leave to your discretion, Reader, to sample these horrific wares. Alex speaks frequently throughout the poems of Prozac, Welbutrin, Cozar, Aldactone, meds. For depression and stress, in one instance “…liquid Prozac on my jeans…” Let’s let that suffice:  all I can say (and you won’t understand this if you haven’t experienced it, and if you have you don’t need me to tell you): it is the direct experience of the Void which is beyond the grasp of language. I can’t tell you. It is literally “unspeakable.” Take it from me.

There is however an 80% correlation between poets (a certain brain chemistry, make you no mistake) and clinical depression. (An NYU Study). Thus, Alex’s book implicitly forwards the understanding of poets and poetry categorically, which is desperately needed in this country to wit.

Loneliness.  A haunting and thwarted loneliness pervades this book – the ongoing desperate need to “connect.” Erotic imagery not excluding lust, abound in red-hot passages here. In fantasy – from the poem The Long Happy Flight of Asa Smallidge Streb, the speaker lusts vicariously for his airliner seat-mate: “Even the way he yawns looks macho and youthful. Big strapping nameless jock of the unexamined life…” Once elsewhere, the accidental touch of a market cashier’s hand gets the juices flowing.  And franker still, from Cum Laude (as if on the internet) “Hey boyz 9 inches here uncut / hard as hell / someone help me with this load…”Amongst its many virtues, frank and deftly rendered eros is a preeminent one and a liberating one at that.

Desperation. In When the Queer Chat Room Closed… Alex, so desperate  for contact outlines crazy chat room scams representing himself as a girl, in some kind of hysterical hope that a girl might be treated better by the faceless co-conversant on the net. “How easily I knead my breasts into being// when, instead of typing ‘48/male’/ I lie a bit, write 20/female…” The yearning and conjoined lust just sizzle through.

The Pleasures of Relinquishment with its recurring line “seven pounds of shame were shed today” sums up the tone of the book, Emblematic in its way of the whole book; this is not merely satire, not analysis not exposé, but polemic.  “Here, here” say I!  Vitriol! And while we’re at it (get a load of this!), this very poem is a villanelle of all things! Villanelle? An obscure French poetic form, strictly dictated, needs recurring lines, specific rhyme pattern, leaving no room whatever for divergence from. None!  (I marvel that Alex doesn’t have a sestina in here too.) I don’t actually know all the rules for the villanelle and I DON’T WANT TO. But this kind of thing is immensely difficult to write, let alone so tellingly, where the great skill does not obtrude on the sheer immediacy of the “punch.” And this brings me to another major point.

Which pleases me near to the point of giddiness. Alex is a master of verbal acrobatics: notwithstanding formal verse, he rhymes too!  This book is redolent with rhyme, and the usual accompanying rations of form, meter and rhythm. Here in form and rhyme etc. – he demonstrates nothing short of virtuosity.

And limericks, yet.

There is something simply triumphantly whacko about writing “serious” limericks if you please, about dire and ugly family shit.  This is to me a post-modern evidence of what I call ‘metaphysical vaudeville’ which I personally propound and find only otherwise, by and large, in Thomas Pynchon. How the hell else you gonna handle the virulently poisonous nuclear fallout of family doom? Long romantic lugubrious verses? Not hardly, them days are gone forever.  Standard English usage and prosody by themselves are inadequate to express, render and convey what is so excruciatingly at stake here. Hence limericks! Nu? Compared to this, black and gallows humor are kids’ stuff.

Whoopee! And another digression, if you please. Note: the grand tradition of rhyme, meter and rhythm has been dissed after the great moderns, and held in unctuously condescending disdain by poets, critics and academic alike. Why do people fail to realize that before say, Eliot, poetry was rhymed, and that the Great Moderns, even as his contemporaries: Yeats, Auden, Frost, Jeffers (?), Housman, Robinson, all wrote rhymed, metered poetry and at the end of an incalculably long historic tradition of same.

And not realize as well that in many quarters rhyme is regarded as an invention to facilitate memorization? How do you think father to son transmission takes place down the centuries – of the great national folk epics? Old men reciting reams of the Great Poem, which rhymes.  And poetry is an oral phenomenon first.


Rhoda Goldfarb (a limerick,)

A gold digger clung to my dad.

To want her he must have been mad.

    And when he was dying

   No sense in her crying,

As long as she got all he had.

An actual person’s name, even the wicked stepmother’s – in a poetic diatribe? This is a bill of particulars; this is a j’accuse – no less!

Nor is Dad exempt,

At Pop’s Grave (you guessed it, a limerick)

I seldom come here with a wreath

 For the gentleman resting beneath

   Who lies grimacing, doomed,

   Ground-up, half-consumed

By a sweetie with vaginal teeth.

Jesus Christ! A friend of mine, a learned sort (Michele Celine Ph.D.) said that “growing up, my mother had one ball, my father the other.” What more need be said of the towering rage that suffuses this whole book?

In Larry Quint’s Birthday, a list of only evocatively related but shatteringly contrived one liners, Alex renders a personal hell of exclusion, desire, pain and hopelessness on par it seems to me with Hieronymus Bosch’s painterly visions of hell, but in personal terms, driving around W. Hollywood and environs – as the “fuel gauge” gets progressively lower. “…Never been so alive in all my alone// tired so tired…22 miles to empty… nice bag boy(at Von’s) too// about the age my mother was when she got rid of me//lucky if I see her once a year…tastes grow baser as the  hours pass…God if my students could see me on my knees,.. 17 miles to empty.   .Res ipse loquitur, folks, the thing speaks for itself. O, and here too, we see the apparently futile but compulsive need for re-joining the mother. Which, btw, is implicated in Freud’s “yearning for the oceanic feeling” replicating that of liquid cosmos of the womb, to say nothing of the broader psychological notion of the” mother wound”. Read this poem early in your reading. It too is a hell of an introduction.

All right: I hate this book. But read it. If you have need of such things, and most everyone does, and you need to unload more of your terrible burden and perhaps feel less alone, and who doesn’t? – this is an indispensable book. Read it if you dare but read it in your stronger moments.

This is an ugly book. Buy it. Can art be ugly? Think of Picasso’s “Guernica.”

© 2014 Steve Goldman

Steve Goldman exists.