Lobster With Ol’ Dirty Bastard
by Michael Cirelli
Hanging Loose Press 2008
Reviewed by Erica Miriam Fabri
To Flatly Refuse to Dumb Down Nothing
In Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Michael Cirelli’s first full-length collection of poetry, the poet has arranged to have the academic order of poetry take on a romantic courtship with the vernacular of hip-hop. In the poem “Dead Ass,” the two genres finally get in bed together:
Fo’ shizzle, crunk, hella: I place in
glass jars like rare moths.
In “Dead Ass,” he not only praises the colorful and rare language that comes from hip-hop culture, but he also bows down to it, just as an archaeologist might bow down to a great artifact; he is humbled by it, as if he will never be able to keep up:
These words make me feel old, and alabaster.
When I hear something new, it’s like I discovered it
for the first time, like I excavated it from the mouth
of a teenager. So I dust it off with my fossil brush
and try to jam it into the keyhole of academia.
One-third of the book is made up of a series of poems which Cirelli has coined “Hip-Hop Sonnets.” However, you should not expect anything too formal; the only formal rule that is followed is that each poem is fourteen lines long. Each poem is a dedication to a different rapper and tells a story from the rapper’s personal life. In most cases, the story is unexpected or uncommon. In the title poem, the infamous father-of-thirteen has brought his entire brood of offspring to a seafood restaurant in Brooklyn. When they sit down to eat, chaos erupts in the dining room:
Dinner rolls bounce off the walls like handballs! Sword fights break out with shrimp skewers, the toddlers wear calamari rings on their fingers like diamonds, and lil’ Rusty does the fake-sneeze-trick that leaves an oyster in his open palm. Ol’ Dirty is ravishing a huge boiled lobster, drawn butter dripping down his chin, as he cracks open the claws with his golden fangs.
The hip-hop artists that Cirelli has chosen to immortalize in sonnet-form are always caught at moments that regular fans wouldn’t normally witness: Talib Kweli expelled from Brooklyn Tech, Pharoahe Monch at a teen poetry slam, Common as a high school basketball star, Phife Dawg in a hospital bed receiving dialysis and Suge Knight using his connections to set up headaches, divorces and pregnancies.
The “Sonnets” are usually witty, but at times become serious. In “Phife Dawg Awaits a Kidney,” Cirelli writes:
…his mother is patient as an olive tree. She understands
the thick accent of dialysis, isn’t fooled by the organ’s rhetoric.
Instead, she marvels at the fluid that scrub’s her son’s blood
makes metaphors about this science-water.
Interspersed with the “Hip-Hop Sonnets,” another third of the book tells the story of the death and life of poet’s own father. His father also suffered kidney failure in his final days, and the poems that deal with his illness echo eerily:
liquor over his head until his kidney floated up
to his throat.
In dealing with his father’s death, Cirelli revisits memories of the life his father lived and tackles the “myth” and “legend” of who he really was. In poems like “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” his father begins to resemble the stereotype of the “gangster” lifestyle commonly assumed by hip-hop artists. In the poem, he has driven his son to the local housing projects to make a “delivery.” His descriptions are stark:
…my father walked out with a chest
made of scales and whistled, with two fingers at the corners
of his lips,
to the shadows that responded from a window…
The father character is obsessed with consumption and with being noticed. He buys expensive sneakers, remote-control monster trucks, surfboards and rare puppets to win his son’s love; he eats a plate of veal in seconds and storms out of the shower and onto the street (completely naked) to beat a neighbor to a bloody pulp.
Yet, he is loved by all, including his son. In “The Giver,” the father is:
…surrounded by every
in the neighborhood,
taking big bites (on his dime).
In his glory, he resembles Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the title poem. However, when he falls, he falls hard. After years of drug dealing, he is arrested and while awaiting trial he grows ill and never recovers. In the poem “Framing the Picture,” Cirelli grapples with his father’s mortality and his final moments:
In the hospital, I watched
my father cry out for his mother,
who has a prosthetic leg. The nuns brought in
silver chains with archangels dangling from them,
and they draped the metal like garlands around his neck.
His father returns twice after his earthly death. Once in a dream, in a poem titled “Lives of Astronauts,” where son seeks father at his family’s local bar, expecting him to be in the same place where he had always been before:
…In my dream, I walked through
the smoked glass and my uncle was pouring drinks,
my cousin was sitting in a chair by the green nuts.
I looked around for my father.
The language is delicate and slow and a reader feels as if every character in the book has suffered a sort of small death themselves. Then, someone at the bar finally speaks:
Your father is dead. I asked my cousin if it was true.
He pulled up his sleeve and showed me a memorial tattoo.
The father returns again in the last poem of the book. This time, he is speaking from heaven, asking that his son write more poems about him. The final couplet is a haunting moment: a ghost’s request that this very book be written:
Meanwhile, dad is not satisfied with the poem he got. He wants
14 more lines,
one final couplet that paints him in that soft, forgiving light.
No hip-hop inspired book would be complete without the bravado and thrill of romance, sexuality and lust. The final third of the book is made up of poems that are Cirelli’s dedication to none other than: the ladies. And, to follow suit, he has made certain to have no shortage of “ass” references. “Culture” is an ode to hip-hop fashion:
…the diamonds in the teeth
make the ladies squint—these same ladies in their too-tight jeans
showing off ass, for the fellas
in their too-loose jeans showing off ass.
In “Girls, Girls, Girls” (borrowed from the Jay-Z song of same name) a piece that offers a detailed list of the colorful array of women that adorn New York City’s streets, Cirelli writes:
…I love how the ass moves up and down when they walk
like two fat kids on a see-saw.
The poem does not hold back. It is pack-filled with metaphor after metaphor:
…I love the high-heels that hoist the rump into
a half-heart silhouette. I love them pushing strollers,
with tattoos of ships on their shoulders.
…I love them in headwrap, in floss, in sari, in cliché
t-shirts on Houston, on Bowery, with braids that wind
Through it all, Cirelli manages to make “rare moths” out of the intricacies of hip-hop and to merge them with the intricacies of his own life without forgetting who he is: a white, middle class guy from the suburbs. He briefly mentions the step-father who raised him, who was “out earning the roof for us,” while a young Cirelli waits at the window for a Saturday visit with his “deadbeat”/“dopehead” birth father, who never shows. He also includes a heartfelt poem about his mother that again highlights Cirelli’s fascination with the language and influence of hip-hop idiom (his mother misunderstands a rap song’s lyrics “Buy you a drank” to mean “Buy you a train”), while also displaying his admiration and love for the woman who raised “…the son / she carried down three flights of stairs / on Leah St. with no car and nowhere / to go…”
In “Losing Creativity,” Cirelli writes of the frustration of a struggling poet trying to get his point across:
I used to rub on these letters for hours
until they shined like patent leather shoes.
The poems in Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard stand powerfully on their own as precise and complete pieces of writing. As a collection, they weave a complex and fascinating story that is equal parts witty and poignant, and at every moment compelling.