Alice Osborn
Heroes without Capes
Main Street Rag Press
ISBN: 978-1-59948-539-3

Reviewer: CL Bledsoe

          Osborn’s collection focuses on heroes, from pop culture figures to historical figures, including presidents. Many of them aren’t people, or things, one would immediately think of as heroes. The book opens with a poem about the poet’s father, embarrassing her by renting questionable movies and pointing out kissing scenes in movies they see together. It’s a bittersweet memory, partly cute, but also slightly disturbing. Osborn isn’t afraid to walk that line when it comes to how people treat each other. Later, in “Meeting the Devil in Myrtle Beach outside Woody’s, Hwy 17,” she describes a date from hell. In this scenario, Osborn is kind of the hero for putting herself out there, and of course she represents all women in that; on the other hand, the date she meets is a kind of antihero. He greets her with cockiness: “Aren’t I the one you’re looking for?” he says. He nudges the conversation more and more toward inappropriateness, such as whether she has intimate piercings, and progresses to a discussion of her genitalia. It’s horrifying, but there’s also definite humor there.

          Another mention of hell comes in “Midnight Meeting at the Crossroads Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, Circa 1936,” which examines the Robert Johnson legend, but from the perspective of the devil, who, in a sense, is also a kind of hero since he brought us the “King of the Delta Blues.”

          One of the more somber poems is “Old Derelicts,” a monologue from the perspective of an abandoned truck that misses its owner. It begins:

My wheels, scuffed and half-buried in the split
blanket of grass, circles of time repeating,
like my owner’s circle on his left finger;
pale reminder of a lost commitment.

          The truck reminisces about jobs they did together, building carports, cutting wood. Osborn’s imagery is rich. She describes the missing owner’s voice as “light like rain,/ yet smoked with whiskey and dust.”

          Osborn’s poems run the gamut from a crude monologue by Captain Bligh to one by Bruce the Shark, a character from the movie Finding Nemo. She has two poems about the alien film and comic book character Predator—one from its perspective and another from the perspective of a clerk at a grocery store where he goes when there’s a sale on meat. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Ode to Hamburger Helper,” which is pretty much what you’d think. The poem describes Hamburger Helper, “enriched pasta and rice,/ packaged cheese and red powdered sauce” as a quick meal for the kids on school night. The narrator’s friends scoff:

They tell me to avoid your yellow starches,
cook real pasta and veggies—forego the quick prep.
Run past Aisle 4—“Prepared Foods”—and run!
And what the hell are you doing in Food Lion anyway?

          But the narrator is stubborn, “They can keep their organic carrots and hand cut pasta;/ I’ve got 27 Box Tops to collect for my son’s school.” She elaborates:

I blame my mother—oh, I know, but it’s true!
She created all from scratch,
spent hours in the kitchen, and nary a Helper or a Kraft
noodle crossed my lips till I was twenty.

          Underlying Osborn’s humor is a sense of grounding in working-class culture. Her references are more likely to come from pop culture than Greek tragedies, though she’s got a few of those as well. “Southern Ice Storm” is a more serious poem about a family dealing with a massive freeze. Tree limbs come down and knock out the power. The family of four are cold and bored, but the father still has to go to work, and since this is set in North Carolina, one can infer that the roads haven’t been cleared and will still be treacherous. “The History of Paint” is another poem about Osborn’s father and paint, “Drunk, my father/ painted walls around the split level stairs.” She captures the process, the paint used, her clear descriptions meticulous and knowledgeable as her father “cover[ed] years of handprints, scratches,/ kicks before we moved to other states.” Now, her father is retired, and Osborn’s mother doesn’t allow him to paint. Osborn muses:

I wonder if all he wants to do
is yank a brush, jam it
into the thick off-white paint
and roll-slap the acrylic until
only the top of his nose remains pink.

          Towards the end of the book, Osborn includes a series of Star Wars-themed poems, such as “I Slept with Boba Fett,” and “What Katrina Taught Boba Fett.” “Boba Fett in AA” is a surprisingly touching monologue presented as Fett sharing at an AA meeting. He recounts a childhood experience, exploring a dark cave with his father during which his father not only taught him survival skills but also gave him the will to survive. Osborn’s language is clean and precise, creating a stark but touching scene, “My arms trembled. Hard. Father noticed/ and said he gets scared too,/ but Fetts don’t quit.” Osborn digs into the character as he recounts the strength he learned from his father:

His voice guided me to bend my body, extend 
one hand, then another glove to the damp walls,
smelling the snails and rot.
He begged me to push up like a blind fish
out of a seaweed tangle
to the circle in the cavern, my headlight mixing
with Kamino’s moon.

I hear him say, Keep moving, in this cold room,
where we clutch our Styrofoam coffees,
where I can’t hide behind my helmet,
the same one he wore before he lost his head.

          The collection ends with a wonderful poem titled “Always on Sundays,” about Osborn’s father taking her to a bookstore when she was a kid. It’s an earnest piece that works because, like many of Osborn’s poems, it balances the sacred and profane, the lewd and the clean. She describes the bookstore, the owner. “Every week I searched for Star Wars #65/ in the back issue bins with Leia and her blaster—/ the one Dad ripped up in front of me/ when he was drunk. Never found it.” There’s verve and joy in the poem, as there is in the excitement of finding new stories. This bookstore owner, with his “chubby belly, beard/ and supreme fondness for faded KISS T-shirts” is another of Osborn’s heroes, perhaps the most important one, as he fed her love of reading.

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