‘This Last Time Will Be the First’ by Jeff Alessandrelli
Portrait by Zach Schomburg
Historical and artistic references abound in Jeff Alessandrelli’s first book, This Last Time Will Be the First. Poems in its first section, “People Are Places Are Places Are People,” reference Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Carson, Simone De Beauvoir, Marcel Duchamp, Nina Simone and René Magritte, among others; via statements that they once uttered, or real or imagined events from their lives, Alessandrelli creates his own idiosyncratic poetic field. At the end of the poem “‘Ongoing time stabbed by a dagger.’—René Magritte,” the poet states:
A white semicircle stapled to a piece of black construction paper and taped on the ceiling we painted a watery dull yellow, lots of unattributable wings floating around, I’ve been working on my idea for a map of the entire universe. In love with its own faultiness, it’s a work in progress, plangent thoughts inside plangent thought.
Although not much is known about “Ongoing time’s…” speaker, his/her notion of the universe is striking for both its flippancy and simplicity. And what might seem incomprehensible to humanity specifically might also just be incomprehensible generally, universally. Every search for rhyme and reason is inevitably a “work in progress,” one “[i]n love with its own faultiness.” Where the artwork of René Magritte and the specific quote Alessandrelli uses for the poem’s title fit in is up for interpretation, but regardless, “Ongoing time…” does a superb job of questioning where our humanistic assumptions begin and our universal presumptions end.
The second section, “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats,” is comical in places—“I have a pet turtle named Spike. He never responds when I call him. He never answers. Sometimes I call him Ike”—and tender in others— “I was born with two wings, / one of them broken.//By the end of our lives/our posture blames us/ for everything, everything.” Every poem in “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats” uses the Jeffrey Roberts name (“The Education of Jeffrey Roberts;” “The Same Jeffrey Roberts That Has Been Missing”) and the proper name element begun in This Last Time’s first section thus continues in its second. Here, though, Alessandrelli invents his speaker up entirely, twisting the “famous historical/cultural/artistic persona” framework used in “People Are Places…” And it works—although there are only five of them, the poems in “Jeffrey Roberts’ Dreamcoats” are some of the strongest in the book.
Entitled “It Is Especially Dangerous To Be Conscious of Oneself” and “You Can’t Discover The Lost Treasure If The Ship Didn’t Sink,” the final two sections in This Last Time Will Be The First are the most traditionally “poetic” and contain virtually no historical/cultural/artistic references. In “It Is Especially…,” Alessandrelli works within a skewed nature poetry realm in some of the poems. Near the end of the section, the entirety of “(Limbs)” reads:
The audible shape
of a billowing scream,
avalanche that was born milk-white
and died dark dark red.
The sun shining;
the resort’s holiday weekend package.
Too many birds staring
from the newly understood limbs
of an upstanding tree.
Mortality and, relating to the section’s title, consciousness, are also threaded throughout “It Is Especially…” The beginning of “(Sharks)” asserts, “The truth of the brittle, infirm spider/ lies in the fly//caught in a mesh of web/the spider can no longer reach./Do you believe in reincarnation?” And lines in “(Father)” reveal:
Today I live in a house
feeling I’m constantly dreaming
what I might have once been
It chafes, clutters reverberation
Poems are not about
the difference between
what you know
and what you choose
Poems are about houses.
And the speaker of “(Father)” is right—if the word stanza is Italian for room, the best poems are often intricately constructed houses comprised of different rooms.
The book’s final section, “You Can’t Discover The Lost Treasure If The Ship Didn’t Sink,” is arguably its throwaway section; it contains just one poem. But that poem incorporates the title phrase of the book. Entitled “This Last Time Will Be The First,” it states:
The world is perfect
and that’s the problem.
You can’t discover
the last treasure
if the ship didn’t sink.
This last time
will be the first.
And although it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek/cutesy, “This Last Time Will Be The First” works as a close to the collection. Like many of the poems in the volume, it balances whimsy with sincerity, leaving its reader in a contemplative mood.
Although from section to section This Last Time Will Be The First shifts considerably in tone, intent and voice (the book’s Acknowledgments section lists two separate chapbook publications), it’s definitely a collection of poems doing something different, especially when compared to the work of a lot of other younger poets. Alessandrelli’s poetry has predecessors, certainly. But it bravely wears its influences on its sleeves, and somehow feels original as a result.