Red Flag Up
by Adam Tavel
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Review by Adam Wright
A t-shirt from Serengeti National Park. The back of a mushroom soup can’s nutritional label. The inner pages of an LL Bean catalogue.
In his new chapbook Red Flag Up, Adam Tavel’s uses these oddly assorted artifacts as “paper” upon which the poet scribes his zaniest and darkest tales – a letter to Tavel’s bullied nephew is written in the fumes of a middle school bus, an ode to Amsterdam is carved onto a rotting picnic table. Quirky and insightful, these “letters” form a collection of deeply personal poetry that traverses a wide and varied landscape of geography, imagery, and theme.
The opening poem “The Fix” establishes the stylistic premise of Tavel’s chapbook. “Ripped from tipsy sleep soft as velveteen / I heard the salt truck’s thwak at 3:13 / and peeked my bleary eyes through dusty slats / to see our battered mailbox lying flat.” This is the collection’s only rhyming poem, and its subject seems trivial when compared to the chapbook’s raw, unapologetic tone. The poem is unconnected to the chapbook’s larger themes, yet also prepares the reader for a chapbook that is well-written and scattered in tone.
“Letter to Dubie Written on the Screams of a Feral Cat Being Tortured by the Neighbor Boy” is a poem about neglect and racism that is contrasted by its darkly comic title. “Letter to Brautigan Written on the Care Instructions for a Guppy That Cost $2.47 and Died on the Drive Home” depicts the parallels between a neighbor’s fatal car accident and a friend’s suicide. “Letter to Weingarten Written as the Script for an Imaginary Western” is a lyrical, narrative-driven poem about the American era of saloons and scallywags. These three poems are the collection’s best, highlighting Tavel’s astute ability to combine traumatic topics with beautiful language and grand metaphors.
Tavel is at his best when exploring death or the imagination, and his more realistic poems fall flat in their partners’ shadows. “Letter to My Wife Written on the Walls of a Blanket Fort” is the poem’s lone romantic poem, and though the subject matter is admirable, it is the collection’s weakest poem. Its brevity and matter-of-fact language leaves the reader craving the chapbook’s more complex topographies.
Tavel is an admirable poet brimming with energy, talent, and raw honesty. Individually, his poems are powerhouses, but when strung together in a chapbook the poems lack a sense of deeper connection. The idea of creating a poetry book of “letters” is unique and clever, but it seems to serve no larger purpose other than granting Tavel the ability to create stunning titles that often overshadow his poems. Despite its shortcomings, Red Flag Up remains a provocative and exciting chapbook that will certainly not be the last from Mr. Tavel.