Paul Genega’s fifth full-length poetry collection explores the ways in which the tangible, external world influences our experiences of life and the formation of our identities. All I Can Recall addresses its theme through an array of diverse topics – from vast, global events like the Great Depression to the deeply personal impact of our own flawed, finite bodies. It is a work of great variety, narrated predominantly by an assortment of interesting characters – some drawn from real friends and family members, and others wrought from the writer’s imagination. All this demonstrates the poet’s extraordinary flexibility.
Genega is clearly skilful. He has a great command of structure and language, and plays with their possibilities. “Parentheses”, for example, muses on the functions of the humble bracket in order to pay homage to a famous Boston art collector, while “Boring Alice” is a child’s tender view of the Northern Lights. “From the Catalogues” is the ex-copy writer’s smirking product summary for a Freud Carving Set in Fitted Wooden Case:
No more clammy silence. No whiny discomposure.
No embarrassing splinters from ego or id.
The poems range from being freeform, and almost conversational in style, to strict and quite structured. This allows Genega a range of devices which enable him to depict his cast of characters appropriately; but his poetic prowess is most apparent when he writes in his own voice. “Wolfie’s Tavern” is a triumph of sound and rhythm:
Blotched with rashes,
of skin and bone,
you bristled and scowled,
on your bar throne
as if bluster and bray
could pass for folks talking,
wit’s fangs keep stalking
death at bay.
“Toast” is simply wonderful. As “not Nat, not, not damned Nat” rises, tipsy, to speak at a wedding, he collides with his brother’s champagne glass and sends its contents flowing across the carpet. In that uncomfortable moment Nat’s thoughts wander with the meandering fizz, recounting the previous and formative embarrassments of his life through “the evanescence of an uncorked mind.” The sense of the relationship between the events of our lives and the people we become as a result is fully realised. It’s a beautiful, intelligent piece, centred around a brilliant and creative image.
However, the range of voices Genega employs to deal with his theme does come at a cost. Some poems have far less impact than others, and some characters appear less well formed. The portrayal of a female impersonator in “Working Life”, with its smattering of “honey”s and references to Marilyn and Tiffany’s, feels a little trite. Certainly, Genega explores our tendency to define ourselves by our jobs – a worthy topic and one common to several of the poems; but this somewhat shallow character representation proves distracting. Inevitably, when even a great artist attempts all things, some will be rendered less successfully than others.
All I Can Recall is the work of a creative and skilful writer, and its concept is undeniably intriguing. Genega’s utilisation of such varied styles and subjects provides a comprehensive examination of the central idea, and makes for a thought-provoking work that showcases his exceptional versatility and skill. It does, however, also confuse and disjoint the collection, offering a mishmash of forms, voices and tones. This is, nevertheless, an impressive work. Just as most readers will find some flaws, most will also find something to make All I Can Recall worth reading.