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99 Poems for the 99 Percent. Edited by Dean Rader. San Francisco: 99: The Press, 2013.

Review By Judy Halebsky
It’s late-December in Oakland. They are marching now for Eric Garner and Mike Brown.
I hear helicopters and see the police cars crossing Telegraph. I walk with them at dusk.
People come out of their homes
and cheer for us as we pass. In
2011, when the poems in the
anthology 99 Poems for the 99
Percent were being assembled, we
were in a severe economic
recession and the Occupy
movement was emerging. Edited
by Dean Rader, this collection
developed out of his blog with the
same name. The 99 poems are all
by different poets. The book
includes not just their bios but also the poet’s commentary on their poem. These insights
help to put the poems in context, both in relation to the Occupy movement and how poets
find and write poems in their daily lives. The publisher, 99: The Press, generally releases
books where the main text is 99 pages long. Here the 99 represents the number of poems
and poets in the anthology and at the same time names the 99 percent catch phrase of the
Occupy movement.
When I was in college, my father, a leftist visionary, would give me poems by political
radicals and social activists. I ignored the books he passed onto me and continued the
learn The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by heart. I’ve long tried to figure out the
conflict been a good poem and a well-intentioned poem. Percy Shelley describes poetry
as the work of the imagination. He argues that verse too closely tied to moral reason lacks
the imaginative energy required for that transformation. With Shelley in mind, I

approached this new anthology 99 Poems for the 99 Percent cautiously. While I share the
concerns of this collection, including economic inequality, military aggression, police
brutality, and consumerism, I was nervous about the poems as poems. I need not have
worried. The anthology is full of vibrant poems that address our challenges individually
and as a group. It includes work by many celebrated poets such as Bob Hicok, Dana
Levin, Matthew Zapruder, Maxine Chernoff, and Camille Dungy, as well as new voices.
These poems attend to the emotional experience of our human condition and offer routes
to finding poetry within the many struggles voiced here.
W. Todd Kaneko’s “Quarry” is a dynamic poem that appears in two versions on opposing
pages. The first page looks like a found poem made from a newspaper article with most
of the text blacked out. So much is blacked out that the lines across the page become hard
to follow. Deciding which words to read in what order creates an active wandering
through the poem. The line “In....the...parking...lot.../...looking...up...at... the... rain” in the
longer version of the poem on the opposite page becomes “tiny voices from the Jurassic
sparking a plot against/ apes looking for supper. That dithery brain recalls”. (I’ve added
the bold type to show the connection.) In the online version posted on Rader’s blog
clicking on the blacked out text revealed what was hidden. Here the two versions live in
mirror image creating a step between what is spoken, what is hidden and what is revealed
in the work of making and reading a poem. “Quarry” continues with a haunting absence
in both form and narrative that touches on the economic struggle of working families
“dreading that...talk/with... her/... kids....about last paychecks, /...her....gas .../ ... bill...., or
about extinction.” The reverse last lines present a more playful and narrative ending:
eating giant ferns, dreading thatchy predators who stalk
with expensive thumbs. That leathery body remembers
living on the skids without worries about last paychecks,
but here is a family portrait, a smorgasbord of gorilla
billionaires – mother worried about her mortgage,
father about rising prices for milk, junior about extinction

This contrast emphasizes the under layer or back story in a family situation and a son’s
world of the animals and make believe.
Christina Olson offers “Dear Buffalo,” a poignant poem about leaving an economically
depressed hometown. The poem’s emotional tenderness contrasts with rough-edged
language from the start:
Sorry about the brain drain thing.
My father said if I came back home,
he would shoot me. He was kidding
mostly. Dear Buffalo, it’s November
in Georgia and today I sunburned.
Every time I spray the roaches,
I think, Still beats shoveling.
Despite the brash humor and unadorned tone, this poem creates a tender lament for ways
that economic necessity shapes our closest relationships. Enjambed lines running across
stanza breaks adds to the disjuncture and distance evoked in the poem. The couplets
support a pairing of person and place while “Dear Buffalo” becomes a love letter that is
trying to justify a break up. Lines toward the end of the poem read:
You’d like the fall down here, when someone
pulls the lid off the sky and it’s blue for days.
People are fat and poor, but the stores
are hiring. And you get used to the accent.

We connect poems with beauty but his poem has so many ugly parts, it shows us what
we don’t want to see. This revealing raw quality has its own kind of beauty.
In an introductory essay, Rader argues that the core of this collection is illumination. He
writes that this anthology “shows how the aims of poetry are in concert with the aims and
ambitions of the vast majority of Americans... You don’t need to know or love poetry in
order to get these poems. You just need to love people, and you need to be at least
somewhat interested in language. Trust me, that’s you.” There’s a poem in here for each
of us. There’s even one that my father would love: Justin Evans’ “Ode to Neruda
(Esperanza).” In short lines that make a long, vertical poem, the poem pays homage to
Neruda and reflects on Neruda’s life and writing, his green ink, the loss of his daughter,
and asks how his vision and values could live in the U.S. today.
The poem begins with “Because of you/tonight I write/ in green ink. / I write in green/as
you always did-/ green being / the color of hope.” The green ink becomes a marker of
poetic lineage and connects the voice in the poem to Neruda. Green connotes new growth
and possibility while naming hope which shifts in the poem between optimism and
naïveté. The poem continues:
I want to think
America has hope
but I don’t know
if there is enough
green ink in my pen
for all of America.
We are vast like
the blue-green sea
but we despair, languish,
lay weighted down
by our sins. We are
carnivorous dogs

running the streets
devouring everything
that smells like hope.

How did you continue
to write in green
after your little girl’s death.
Was it habit
or did you switch
to another green virtue,
perhaps epiphany
or safe passage? I know
you rarely
thought of leisure
on the run
all those years
chasing the Nobel
being chased
by Republicans.
America never sleeps.
We are constantly
on the prowl.
I am weary
of America lying
to itself. Maybe
we need socialism.
Maybe no one candidate
can offer enough
hope for America
our appetite too immense

to ever glut or satiate
our thirst.
These straightforward, carefully measured lines start with quaint affection for green ink
and develop to address complex struggles of the present day. As the tight short lines
move down the page, the intensity and span of the poem increases. Lines such as, “I am
weary / of America lying/ to itself” pivot the poem between hope and despair creating an
intense urgency. My father, more a reader of theory that poems, would be pulled in by the
celebration of Neruda’s communal values and the understated critique of present day U.S.
policies. I stay with the poem for the way it subtly moves us to the edges of what we can
articulate in words and what we only know through our bodies.
Evans’ “Ode to Neruda (Esperanza)” resonates with me because it is hard to be hopeful. I
don’t always know that I am making a positive change. When there are a thousand people
marching does it matter that I am with them? We can march and we can write. Both are
important ways to draw attention to how government policies and social structures affect
the lives of people living in this country and around the world. Will these poems carry the
weight? Can they reach into the corners and forgotten spaces? Can they nourish
compassion and help us to care for each other across so many divides? I hope so. I think
so. I’m sure. Actually, for me right now, they already have.

Judy  Halebsky  is  the  author  of  two  collections  of  poetry,  Tree  Line  and  Sky=Empty,  both  published  by  
New  Issues  Poetry  &  Prose.  Her  honors  include  fellowships  from  the  MacDowell  Colony,  the  Millay  
Colony  and  the  Japanese  Ministry  of  Culture.  Originally  from  Halifax,  Nova  Scotia,  she  now  lives  in  
Oakland  and  teaches  at  Dominican  University  of  California.

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