Poetry review – GENTRIFYING THE PLAGUE HOUSE: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a character-rich collection by Edward Doyle-Gillespie
Gentrifying the Plague House Edward Doyle-Gillespie Apprentice House, 2021 $11.55, 50 pages ISBN: 978-1627203302
The characters in Edward Doyle-Gillespie’s captivating new collection all partake of myth and the supernatural. At the same time they are plausible and realistic. Doyle-Gillespie is a Baltimore City policeman, and the portraits of these bewitching figures are almost like the mug shots of ghosts and sirens.
Take Lilith, whom we encounter on a city bus going through what’s left of Baltimore’s red light district (“we shuddered past / Holliday Street, / and the old, boarded-up porno shop.”) The name already conjures up the demonic figure from Isaiah and Gnostic mythology, Adam’s first wife. The narrator of the poem, “Lilith in Transit,” swears he sees the blind man “on the corner of / President and Baltimore” (the heart of “the Block,” in its heyday ) hail her as the bus passes.
But my Lilith, incendiary in her Affliction t-shirt, two rows up, only twisted her hair in those tortoise-shell coils, pursed her lips, and waited for the next stop to arrive.
There is also the woman in “Vixen in the Alley on New Year’s Eve” who “stands Ecce Homo / in platform heels.” (“Ecce homo” are the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate when he presents Jesus, bound and crowned with thorns, to the hostile crowd, just before the Crucifixion.)
She will forgive me my trespasses, she says, because this is the first of the year, the horse-back cops are traversing in front of Eddie’s like a fascist promenade, and she is the one meant to usher me inside.
The poem “Bruja” (“Witch” in Spanish) opens:
I asked her to cast the spell again, this time closer to home, and she did.
The unnamed Bruja conjures the setting from an abandoned storefront, “a place for Leviticus voodoo / and Holy-Roller magic.” A marble bar materializes, “and brass rails the color of honey,” “Satchmo’s version / of Mack the Knife piped in / Deus ex Machina.” She continues her magic, the vivid magic of Doyle-Gillespie’s words, until finally
She leaned like a teacher down beside me as the gloaming poured itself through the wide window, and she asked me whether this was exactly what I meant.
Doyle-Gillespie’s vivid characters also include the Fish Man, who “tried to swim in midair that day” (“Rapture of the Fish Man”); the mysterious woman in “Conjuring Manzanar” wearing “the short boots / and tight, black jeans of the book store girls / I knew in Brooklyn.” There are the Gossips in the poem “Gossips,” so like a trio from Greek mythology (the Fates, say, Clotho, Lahkesis and Atropos), spinning scandalous tales (“The Gossips say you got those bangles / that you wear / from another woman’s husband.”), There is “the typewriter woman” in “Much Later, She Will Edit This,” “her arms full / of an antique Underwood.” “The Farsi Man” in “Chasing Zoroaster” who “muttered to you about / the war between evil Ahriman / and his golden brother Ahura Mazda” teaches us that “creation / is the cruelest trick of all.” And “The Pele Allowance” begins evocatively:
You had a lover who ate fire. Who painted her face in oily back-and-red, and wore a second-skin that made her look like a pyre of a rioter’s rage each time she moved.
The opening title poem, “Gentrifying the Plague House” is bookended at the end by the final poem,” “When It Was Sanctuary.” The opening poem describes “the fever,” which occupies the house, “a lugubrious Buddha,” like “something from a Salem headstone”; “in the presence of the madre, / it knows its sins and only wishes to escape.”
And in the final poem, “Time will pass, I tell her, / and they will tear this house down.” The poem – and the book – ends:
That is the part of the house that will cave in on itself last when they knock the legs out from under this place and send the walls down to meet the earth.
In Gentrifying the Plague House, Edward Doyle-Gillespie covers the whole gamut from creation to destruction, from Brahma to Shiva. His language is alive and his characters memorable.