Dirty Bomb by Mark Neely

dirty bomb smallDirty Bomb
By Mark Neely
Oberlin College Press, 2015
The FIELD Poetry Series, volume 35 

–reviewed by Kathleen Kirk

The poems in Dirty Bomb move and disturb me. They are like “weapons of mass disruption,” as Wikipedia puts it, describing dirty bombs, or explosives intended to contaminate an area (notably a civilian area) with radioactive material. I get the feeling that Mark Neely feels contaminated by 21st-century American culture, and his participation in it—that he’s suffering from a metaphorical radiation sickness from exposure to too much…just too much. 

As evidence, I could offer the first stanza of “Celebrity Song,” which ends with his italics

It’s that tricky time of year,
when greasy, worthless hacks
sweep the awards shows
and I try to ride my malice
into spring, juiced on whatever’s
in season, then wind up
hospitalized for exhaustion

I think this is a persona poem in the voice of a movie star. But I also think the voice of many of these poems carries similar anger, “malice,” dismay, regret, shame, and sorrow. “I like the feeling of my fist / against a plaster wall,” begins one poem, an example of the speaker’s anger and the poet’s use of enjambment to disrupt meaning or convey double or doubly charged meaning. (This also happens via purposeful paucity of punctuation.) 

“More and more” provides further evidence of too much exposure or even contamination by memory itself, beginning “more and more / I fight for sleep.” The fight involves valium, bourbon, Milton, and Google. In Dirty Bomb, there is death and destruction by airplane, motorcycle, heroin, storm, war, and girlfriend. By goose, ice, fashion, fine dining. Everything has the opportunity to be toxic.

Walking home from work the other day, I witnessed some major tree trimming of the sort that happens in “Paul’s Tree Care,” a poem that ends up far, far from my neighborhood but somewhere on the map of our shared 21st-century experience.

Paul’s Tree Care 

The short one does the shouting,
holds the rope by idling pickup,
while the other guy—tall and gaunt
with a lopsided crew cut—straps
spikes to his boots and climbs
the maple like a giant insect, until
he’s high above the towering chimney.
That’s a big-ass tree, the short guy says,
as he ties a chainsaw to a rope and hauls
it skyward. It’s always the quiet one
who climbs the tree, or shimmies
through a crawl space waking snakes,
or crouches in a dank cellar and
water the face of a hooded prisoner. 

Scary stuff.  I was never at ease reading these poems, and I have read them several times, most recently this holiday weekend with fireworks popping and relentless news of terrorism. Indeed, as in the title poem, “it was never easy / to tell terror // from security.” 

Bullet Though Apple by Harold E. Edgerton

There is terrifying beauty, yes, as in the middle of “Memorize the starry-”: “our lives are rising / streaming toward the sun” followed by homely truth: “the flowerbeds stink of gunpowder” which is also the truth outside my window tonight…and what Keats said.

So I leave you with that stark odor, our loaded celebration, and several links to poems from Dirty Bomb, where you’ll find poignancy along with the disruption, and where you may come to agree with Neely that there’s “nothing but the sacred / left to burn.”


Mark Neely at EIL  

Mark Neely at Oberlin College Press
(includes 3 poems from the book)

Mark Neely at Sixth Finch
(“I step away from the oil fires” from Dirty Bomb)

Mark Neely at New Ohio Review
(“I came back from the East” from Dirty Bomb)

Mark Neely at Black Warrior Review
(“In this small world” and “I left the comfort of the sea” from Dirty Bomb)

Mark Neely at The Poets Studio
(“Solomon’s Wisdom” from Dirty Bomb, plus video of Mark talking about simile and metaphor in poetry)

“Dirty bomb” defined at Wikipedia  

Bullet Through Apple (1964) by Harold E. Edgerton



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