The Comic Flaw was my first full collection of poems. It was published by Neil Orts. In it I tried to create a memoir or novel in a group of poems. Here is the fine introduction that Angela O’Donnell wrote for the book and other reviews written by Janet McCann, Steven Schroeder, Don Wall, Phil Poulter, and the Midwest Book Review.
Alan Berecka’s first book of poems begins and ends in dreams. The first poem takes place on a pier as his great-grandfather disembarks from a boat just arrived from “the old country.” Un-bound by time and dis-placed in space, the poet holds parlance with the dead, urging Piusus Antonavage to return to the world to which he belongs as life on this shore will prove hard and poor. The old man drinks a long glass of beer, grins, and responds wryly: “Each man has one life: what does it matter where he breeds or drinks?”
A question for the ages, indeed, and one that haunts this volume, though a happy haunting it is. In the pages that follow, there is much drinking and breeding, most of it carried out with grit and gusto by Berecka’s family members, who are just as colorful and just as plain-dealing as old Piusus himself. These include the likes of a card-sharp grandmother, a mad aunt who believes herself a cow, an “idiot uncle” who drops his birthday cake and lives his (many) remaining years in terror of the premature death portended, a hard-working and harder-drinking father, and a saintly mother who
suffers through it all. These people, most of them passed, or fast-passing, out of this life, are very much alive in Berecka’s book. They move across the pages like much-loved, holy ghosts, all conjured by the poet, who serves as affable Polish-Lithuanian-American spirit medium who seems glad for the company. As for the lucky reader, he or she is rapt by story after story, ranging from the riotous to the merely funny, for the spirit that presides over all the others is that of Comedy herself, wise and winsome in her ways, a blessed presence who makes life bearable and art possible.
Berecka’s gifts as a narrative poet are many. Among these is his capacity for the gently grotesque. These poems often relate scenes and events that are sad, and even tragic, in their implications. A drunken father polkas around the dance floor, his small son clutched to his chest like a pigskin football; the same father, described as “a masked alien master / of fire, heat, and light, the violator / of cold elements,” wakes his sleeping children and drives them across mountain roads to see the ruined, rusted remains of one of his creations; the same father flees his wife, with his son in tow, to spend Saturday drinking and swearing with cronies, hides pornography in his sock drawer, and punishes his son, “a bull of a man” wielding a “razor strop,” for his childhood transgressions. Berecka does not flinch from the reality of life growing up amid this deeply flawed family, yet always insists upon tempering judgment with generosity—a generosity that manifests itself in wit and wordplay, in the blending of unexpected grace with ordinary failure, in representing the paradox of human error generated and governed by love. In the title poem of the volume, the poet asks the keynote question: if “I can’t laugh at my childhood, /what
am I supposed to do with it?” True to the ethos of Comedy, Berecka absolves each and all for their sins and holds out the possibility for them to become their better selves.
Such forgiveness is based in Comedy and also in the faith passed on to Berecka by his parents and grandparents, Roman Catholics with an Eastern European flavor strong as sauerkraut. The poet renders much of his religious formation with characteristic humor: the child’s nightly fear of not “signing off” properly (“Father, Son, Holy Ghost”) before dropping off to sleep, his fanciful conflation of the 4-foot-high-replica of the crucified Christ hanging in his church with a similarly sized poster of Carl Yaztremski on his bedroom wall, the buzz—and inevitable guilt—from stolen sips of communion wine. This is the universal stuff of the Catholic Childhood—albeit seen and narrated from Berecka’s skewed perspective—which resonates and delights. Yet, ultimately, the poet’s comic vision is grounded in a serious theology: the belief in the goodness of God and of the creation, made manifest again and again in the human beings who have graced his life and shaped his generous vision. Berecka’s faith is neither pious nor easy: he loses and finds it, loves and loathes it, wrestles with it, and passes it on to his own children. In all these stages of (un)belief, the language and imagery of sacramentality—sacraments as visible signs of what exists but cannot be seen—pervades these poems as surely as they pervade the poet’s consciousness. This is especially poignant in his poems about his own family, his wife and children. The words he writes for his daughter as she leaves home for college become Eucharist—pieces of his heart embedded in his art—his body, his blood, offered to his child.
The final poem of The Comic Flaw returns us, once again, to the realm of dreams. As with old Piusus, the poet finds himself speaking to the dead—one last genial ghost who haunts the volume—this time, the old Lithuanian priest under whose strict guidance the young poet had served as altar boy. During the Easter Vigil, long ago, the priest died suddenly on the altar, initiating the child into the adult nightmare of existential terror. Now, mercifully, 30 years later, the poet dreams the old man alive, who comes to him offering two chalices filled with wine. In sacramental gesture that looks forward as well as back, uniting Berecka’s ancestral past with his Providential future, the priest issues a simple invitation: “There’s plenty. Let’s drink.” Berecka’s received faith and native disposition merge and mingle here, in these cups of wine. In defiance of his boyhood fears, death gives way to life, and the Christian vision manifests itself as ultimately Comic, with Christ as King of the Comedy.
These poems offer all these gifts—and more— extending to the reader the glass of beer, the cup of wine, along with the poet’s own invitation to the Eucharistic feast. Here, he says: “There’s plenty. Let’s drink.”
Choose your cup. Drink deep.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
New York City
All Souls’ Day, 2008
THE COMIC FLAW
by Alan Berecka
neoNuma Arts Press (2009) 80 pages, $13.95
ISBN: 978-0-9741623-6-2, Poetry
Alan Berecka’s new book, The Comic Flaw, is a true find for readers who like poems about people. The poems have such personality they seem to jump off the page and invite the reader out for a beer. The style is an expansive free verse, reflective and inviting, sometimes varied by flexible blank verse.
This poetry is for its light seriousness or it’s serious lightness—it is sometimes funny, sometimes Gothic, always delightful in its reminiscences of a tough Catholic childhood. The delight is in the accurate and sometimes hilarious descriptions of the child’s understandings and misunderstandings. Many of the poems are striking short
narratives of a world that exists only in memory, but is seen through lenses that are by no means rose-colored, but rather tinted with irony and laughter. There is no bitterness in the poems, but lots of affection. We learn to know an intelligence that no force of family or church could force into an approved mold, and we see how insight comes from both difficulty and delight.
The cast of characters is a feast in itself. While we are reminded a little of those who peopled Angela Ashes, Berecka’s personae seem more layered. This kind of poetry shares the appeal of fiction—the reader is interested in what happens as well as the poetry of what happened. Ironic turns of event are common in this world.
Of all the dramatis personae Berecka creates, the father may be the most memorable. A tough yet sympathetic figure, the old man wants his son to become a big-shot lawyer and is filled with hairy, homespun wit: What’s the sound of one hand clapping?/ An ovation at a live sex show. My old man/ didn’t know Zen from Shinola, but he loved/ the joke. He often spewed his own blue sayings/that meant as little as the riddles the blind masters/ on Kung Fu assigned to his young grasshopper.
The blue sayings are only partly understood by the young son, who later sees them, though, as part of the force that drove him toward expressive language and away from the goals his father would have set for him.
The incidents narrated are full of strange epiphanies, some mistaken and some real. Some events compel a nervous laugh of recognition, while others are laugh-out loud funny. Some of the funnier ones are those describing the users of the library where the speaker works. And then there is “St. Peters Square 1979,” in which the young speaker who does not know Italian waits with a friend to catch the Pope’s attention as passes by in the his procession: …we practiced in unison/as if we were again pre-communicants chanting/ the Baltimore Catechism until we had it right./ That night as the young Pope rode past/ a few feet away, we shouted in our best Berlitz,/ Where are you going with our luggage?// Years later the now-aging pope returns in a dream:// I see his confused look/ snap around to our direction, and I swear/ I can hear him answer, Too far, my son, too far.
What gives this a special flavor is an understated sacramental vision—good is found unexpectedly, and small thing become signs of the presence and action of the transcendent. While these don’t always sort out as specifically Christian poem, their sense of the absolute contributes to an underlying good nature—in all senses—that is rare in current poetry.
Janet McCann, The Main Street Rag vol 14 num 3 Summer 2009
In Alan Berecka’s poetry, the presence of God in common people, everyday acts, and ordinary things mostly goes without saying. No need to preach a presence so palpable — only to say “look!” and to say it with a charm and grace that can take your breath away (as in the beautiful poem “For My Daughter,” which begins with a skeptical glance at two legends in which a host in the hands of a priest in despair is transformed into human flesh and ends without a shadow of doubt that there is miraculous love always present always here, always now: “Still, once you have moved on from here, / should you lose faith in your own worth / or in the fact that you are loved, I pray / that this cheap piece of paper on which I / have labored with my simple art might / become a sliver of my own certain heart.” 74)
More often than not, it is laughter that leaves us breathless — and Berecka is a masterful celebrant of that most holy sacrament. In “The Elk” (34), he begins with three words from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” and, before we know it, we are on a cross-country bus trip with a screaming baby, a broken bathroom door “banging out some Satanic lullaby,” an obese Elk, and a poet who tells himself “this is not the bus poem / I had hoped to live or write.” The fleeting thought that “mystical moose” may “appear to hush quiet / conversations only on Canadian buses / on which Elizabeth Bishop rode and wrote. . . . / vanishes as the door slams, / the baby screams, the Elk’s drooling head / kneads my shoulder. The hell-bound bus / swerves and fails to miss a suicidal skunk. / The cabin fills with a sickening odor. / Another mile toward our destination is gained,” and we arrive with a twist at the phrase uttered in resignation in the middle of Bishop’s poem, now a mystical insight, “for even at its most absurd, life’s like that.” (34-35)
At the mystical heart of Berecka’s blue collar poetics — as in all mysticism — is a relentless commitment to telling it (as the poet’s father says) “like it is,” because telling it is the only thing we have that can make it possible to see it. And seeing it, dying and absurd, there is nothing to do with it but laugh (as suggested in the title poem) — whether “it” is one’s childhood, life more generally, or death. In “Blue Collar Poetics,” laughter shared is the moment of redemption. And in “Punxsutawney Phil Forecasts the End of the Romantic Period,” there is laughter between the lines that describe a professor (who has just been reminded of the limited vision of Romantic poets who spent so much time in the woods but — as far as a reader can tell from their poems — never stumbled “across a dead and half-rotten woodchuck”) staring past the poet, a student in his class, “well out into space, / as if he were searching for the home planet of my alien / tongue” (37). We laugh. The professor shrugs and moves on. Life’s like that.
Berecka, like Flannery O’Connor, has little patience for “sublime” vision that closes eyes to the grotesque. Like O’Connor, he is a teller of tales because he believes deeply in the redemptive power of stories that make us look — that witness rather than theorize — and that moves him, as she predicted story tellers would move, to poetry rather than the novel. O’Connor’s description of “a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking” fits the sensibility of Berecka’s poems. And this, as she says, “is the beginning of vision. . .”
The Comic Flaw begins and ends with poems that make past present in persons — great-grandfather Piusus Antonavage in the first poem, who has come from Lithuania. “He pours a glass, drinks / deeply and grins. In a thinning accent he tells me, / Boy, it is not so good to think so much. / What is there to know? Each man has one life. / What does it matter where he breeds or drinks?” (1) And in the last poem, an old Lithuanian priest, a Franciscan, thirty years dead: “Uneasy, I turn to find / my old priest holding two gold cups / which he fills with the tide at our feet. / He smiles, hands me a chalice, / and says, There’s plenty. Let’s drink.” (80)
Yes, plenty. The collection is a Eucharist from beginning to end. Bread and wine have their place, but the sacramental elements might just as well be baseball, popcorn, t-shirts, a puzzled Pope responding to a phrasebook reference to lost luggage, a woodchuck dead and half-decayed — or the poet’s old man flipping a bird. This is holy ground. Take off your shoes. Get comfortable. Enjoy.
Response to “the comic flaw”;
Don Wall says:
I’m an academic lifer–have spent a lifetime teaching, among other things, poetry and creative writing. In retirement, I finally have time to seek out contemporary poets–and Berecka is by far the best one I have come across (and this includes better-known names like Billy Collins). His range of subjects and tone are impressive, but despite the breadth of his interests, his poetry is accessible to anyone who thinks and feels–and who has a wry sense of humor. Berecka deserves the widest possible publicity and exposure–he is that good!
A fine work of verse, May 6, 2009
Who knew the musings of a New Yorker turned Texan could be so entertaining? “The Comic Flaw” is a volume of poetry from Alan Berecka, a man who has been all over the United States. Serious yet utterly entertaining and humorous, “The Comic Flaw” is a fine work of verse. “The Naked Truth”: I knew where those women hid. I found/them that time my mother sent me/to stow her mate’s just-washed underwear/into his top dresser drawer, and there beneath/his last pair of clean briefs, I caught a glimpse/of a glossy cover. A nearly naked temptress/beckoned to me, Don’t be shy. Turn the page.//I had no idea what I’d find there, but I would learn/with every chance I got to return. I memorized/their curves, rolls, shadows, and even their names./I feared the possibility of parental footfalls, so I stood/there dumbly, numb like Adam did that day/he realized that he was naked but so was Eve – /that moment when shame first mated desire.
Profanely Sacred, March 7, 2009
I’ve heard Alan Berecka read his poetry many times. What always comes through is the humor mixed with warmth and nostalgia. In his first book the voice is a little more somber than I expected. He is not a detached observer, but a participant in an all too real life. The humor is still a very strong component, but here it seems part clinging to sanity, and part mystic epiphany. One of my current favorites is “Tutorial,” where a librarian views his patrons as part of a cosmic joke designed to teach compassion, only in a Borgesian twist the librarian contemplates the possibility that he may be part of someone else’s lesson, just another set-up to a different punch line. These poems are great stories with characters ranging from family members to baseball players to supreme beings. Oh, and I can’t leave out the dreaded zamboni driver.